On October 2, 2018 - the 5th Anniversary of International Wrongful Conviction Day - Innocence Canada client O’Neil Blackett had his name cleared after a long painful 17-year wait.
On a cloudy, rainy Tuesday O’Neil entered a courtroom at 361 University Avenue in Toronto with his lawyer, Innocence Canada co-founder James Lockyer. Many of O’Neil’s close friends were present to hear the announcement that the charges against O’Neil had been withdrawn.
O’Neil is the 22nd person whose name Innocence Canada has helped clear.
O’Neil was tragically another victim of the now disgraced former paediatric pathologist Charles Smith.
O’Neil Blackett’s nightmare began on February 10, 1999 when he was arrested for the murder of his friend’s daughter, 13-month-old Tamara who had passed away two days earlier while he was babysitting her. Tamara had intestinal and breathing problems and had been vomiting and losing weight prior to her death.
Charles Smith, revered at the time as the foremost expert on child deaths, conducted the autopsy and concluded that Tamara had not died of natural causes but had died due to strangulation or blunt force. O’Neil cooperated with authorities and consistently maintained that he had not caused Tamara’s death. However, after the testimony of Smith at his preliminary hearing, O’Neil accepted a manslaughter plea for fear of being convicted of murder. O’Neil had already served 15 months in pre-trial custody by the time he entered the plea in August 2001. He was sentenced to a further three years and three months. O’Neil did not appeal.
After being released in October 2003 on mandatory supervision, O’Neil found life very difficult in general, especially when looking for employment.
In 2005 the newly appointed Chief Coroner for Ontario Dr. Barry McLellan initiated a review known as the Chief Coroner’s Review that examined the work of Smith, in criminally suspicious deaths of children during the 1990’s. There had been expressions of concern about Smith’s professional competence in cases of sudden, unexpected deaths of children dating back as far as 1991.
Dr. Christopher Milroy, then the Chief Forensic Pathologist of the Department of Forensic Pathology and Legal Medicine in the United Kingdom was retained by the Office of the Chief Coroner to review Tamara’s case.
Dr. Milroy criticized and rejected Smith’s conclusion concerning the cause of Tamara’s death. He felt pathology could not provide a cause of death and that it should be classified as “unascertained”.
On September 15, 2009 Mr. Justice Rosenberg of the Ontario Court of Appeal granted O’Neil’s application for an extension of time to file an appeal of his conviction. James Lockyer filed a notice of appeal on behalf of O’Neil requesting that the guilty plea be set aside, and a new trial ordered on the charge of manslaughter.
Dr. Milroy provided a further opinion and Dr. Michael Shkrum, a Forensic Pathologist at the University Hospital of London, Ontario also provided an opinion. Their reports were received in February and April of 2013.
On May 17, 2017 the Crown consented to the appeal and agreed that O’Neil’s guilty plea should be set aside and that his request for a new trial on a charge of manslaughter be ordered.
Child death cases are extremely difficult and emotionally charged but thankfully O’Neil Blackett’s journey through the criminal justice system has come to a just conclusion without him or his family having to endure another trial.
O’Neil can now move forward and pursue his dreams, aspirations and goals that for far too long didn’t seem possible.