Alberta lawyers are calling for an immediate, independent investigation into allegations of mismanagement and negligence within the office of Alberta’s chief medical examiner that could undermine the administration of justice.
“Obviously this has the potential, if any of these allegations are accurate or partly accurate, to affect the credibility of convictions already existing in the system and cases unfinished before the courts,” Alberta Criminal Defence Lawyers Association president Ian Savage said Monday.
“There needs to be an independent, external-based audit of that office immediately,” he said.
Savage was responding to the most recent allegations made by former chief medical examiner Dr. Anny Sauvageau as part of her $5.15-million-dollar wrongful dismissal lawsuit against Alberta Justice, Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, and four senior bureaucrats.
In a court document filed today, Sauvageau goes beyond her previous allegation that senior Justice officials politically interfered in her office and its work.
Sauvageau now alleges she discovered serious mismanagement and negligence when she became chief medical examiner in July 2011.
She alleges any employee with access to the office’s case-management system could change information about the cause and manner of a death “with no trail of evidence to indicate who changed the information and when the change was made.”
Staff, she alleges, could also alter an autopsy report without a medical examiner being aware of the change.
She claims all of these problems were confirmed in an external audit by Deloitte, a consulting firm. She said she asked for money to fix the problems, but was denied and then told to “keep it secret.”
Edmonton defence lawyer Paul Moreau, a former Crown prosecutor, said the allegation, if true, has serious ramifications for the administration of justice.
“That affects the integrity of the autopsy report which is a document that we in the justice system have always all considered to be sort of sacrosanct,” he said. “Once it is produced with a signature, we consider it to be genuine and authentic and we rely on it heavily.
“So if it is, in fact, not as secure as we thought it was, that is a big problem,” Moreau said.
Lax control over evidence
Sauvageau also claims that, under her predecessor, there was lax control over evidence related to criminal investigations. Specifically, she alleges an office employee took home a gun from the evidence room for personal use. It is alleged other guns simply went missing.
Moreau said that allegation is particularly alarming.
“Everybody knows (the medical examiner’s office) takes dead bodies in and they analyze them,” he said. “But they also receive, from crime scenes, a number of exhibits and they are responsible for ensuring the chain of continuity of those exhibits.
“Lawyers, prosecutors, and courts all rely on the office of the medical examiner to ensure that those exhibits are handled properly.
“The allegation here is that there was a lack of internal controls to preserve proper chain of custody,” Moreau said. “That is a big problem. That could jeopardize any and every criminal prosecution for any kind of culpable death.”
Justice Minister Jonathan Denis has in the past declined comment on the allegations because he said the matter is before the courts. His press secretary did not respond to an interview request from CBC News today.
Savage said Denis can’t ignore these most recent allegations.
“We can’t wait for the outcome of this civil litigation between the former chief medical examiner and the government to get to the bottom of these allegations,” he said.
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