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Pathologist Dr. Charles Smith arrives at public hearings in an inquiry into his work in Toronto, on Jan. 2, 2008. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Pathologist Dr. Charles Smith arrives at public hearings in an inquiry into his work in Toronto, on Jan. 2, 2008. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

John Chipman on getting the story right Add to ...

When I first called Brenda Waudby four years ago asking to write a book about her, she was happy and wary.

On a cold January night 20 years ago, Brenda’s 21-month-old daughter, Jenna, was killed by her teenage babysitter.

The death of a child is the worst life can throw at any parent, and it was only the beginning of Brenda’s trauma.

It would take almost nine years before Jenna’s babysitter confessed and was finally convicted. Before that, Brenda was the prime suspect because of the shoddy work of Charles Smith, the now-disgraced forensic pathologist who did Jenna’s autopsy,

She was charged with second-degree murder, and became a pariah in her hometown of Peterborough, Ont. Her other daughter, Justine, was placed in foster care. The murder charge was eventually dropped, but Brenda felt pressured to plead guilty to a lesser child-abuse charge involving Jenna or risk losing Justine forever to adoption.

It would take 13 years to get that wrongful conviction overturned.

The judicial system failed Brenda at almost every turn. People she trusted to help make things right also ended up making them worse.

When Brenda and I first met, she trusted almost no one. Especially journalists. Why would she? In Brenda’s view, most of the media in Peterborough were happy to characterize her as a suspected child murderer. After the charge was dropped, the tone of the coverage didn’t change much, and she was bitter that few in the media saw her as the grieving mother that she was.

She paid a heavy price. The lingering cloud of suspicion almost cost Brenda her relationship with her surviving daughter. And it delayed the one thing she really needed: the chance to grieve Jenna’s death. Her 15-year-long fight for justice became so all consuming that it left no space for anything else.

Brenda wanted her story told, but could she trust me to get it right?

I’ve chronicled the lives of vulnerable, traumatized people many times in my job as a journalist and author. My first book, The Obsession, centred on a 17-year-old teenager whose uncle died in his arms in the middle of a North Atlantic storm. I’ve told the stories of genocide survivors in Bosnia and refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq. And miscarriages of justice, of course. Brenda’s story is just one of four I examine in Death in the Family.

Living up to the trust that people place in you is the hardest part of the job.

On the one hand, I am giving voice to the trauma they have suffered, to the injustice they have endured. And if I do my job well, there is value in that: the validation of their experiences and sometimes, a sliver of justice. But it comes at a cost. To find the power of Brenda’s experience, I asked her to guide me back through the darkest corners of her life.

A journalist is supposed to stay impartial, to be an arm’s-length observer. Don’t get emotionally involved. It’s often impossible. How could I ask Brenda to make herself that vulnerable and not do the same thing myself?

I like to think of myself as a compassionate and empathetic person. I know I have a strong sense of wrong and right. (Sometimes probably too strong.) And I’m sure those traits are what draw me to stories of trauma and injustice in the first place. But the responsibility weighs on me. Because all the pain I put Brenda through would have been for nothing if I didn’t get her story right. Every fact. Every detail.

One can’t, of course. I know that. I just pray that any mistakes I made were so tiny they are inconsequential. Because the thought of causing more pain to Brenda or any of the other parents and caregivers in the book sits heavy on my shoulders.

Brenda has read the book. She says she’s happy with it. That she learned from it, that it put her own experiences in the context of so many other tragedies perpetrated by Smith and those he worked with. In a way, it showed her she wasn’t alone.

My job is done now. The experience of writing this book will stay with me for years to come, but I will move on. To other stories, to other books. Brenda will have her own road. She says our journey was worth the effort, that trusting me with her story helped her heal.

I hope that is the truth.

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