How many unsafe convictions, how many children stolen?
Added: (Sun Jul 15 2001)
Pressbox (Press Release) -
Gene find casts doubt on double 'cot death' murders
An expert said there was a one in 73 million chance Sally Clark's babies
died naturally - and a jury agreed. Now new genetic research could help to
John Sweeney and Bill Law
Sunday July 15, 2001
Sally Clark was sent to prison two years ago, condemned to life inside for
murdering her two babies
because - among other evidence - there was only 'one chance in 73 million'
of the babies, born a year apart, both dying of natural causes.
But the discovery of a cot death gene means that the odds for a second
death could have been as high as one in four - and that by hearing 'one in
73 million' the jury was presented with a simple, but false, probability.
The new genetic research raises the possibility that Clark - and other
women - have been the victims of an appalling series of miscarriages of
justice in multiple cot death cases.
A joint investigation by BBC's Five Live Report and The Observer has
revealed a climate of suspicion against mothers who suffer two or more cot
deaths, based on the 'crude aphorism' of top paediatrician
Professor Sir Roy Meadow that, unless proven otherwise, 'two is suspicious
and three is murder'. Sometimes known as 'Meadow's Law', it has been
adopted by doctors, lawyers and the police.
Manchester University's discovery of a cot death gene in February knocks
flat the view of Meadow and others that one should 'think dirty' about
multiple cot deaths.
Microbiologist Dr David Drucker, who helped to identify the cot death gene,
said of Meadow's Law: 'It's
scientifically illiterate.' His is not a lone voice.
Now Clark's defence team intends to prepare a fresh appeal, based in part
on the discovery of the cot
death gene. Other appeals are likely to follow.
Clark maintains her innocence: 'I now suffer the minute by minute torture
of life imprisonment knowing,
as I accept only I could know, that I did not harm my little boys, and did
nothing but loved them.'
Clark's first child, Christopher, was born on 22 September 1996 and died 11
weeks later. At the time,
he was certified to have died naturally from a lung infection. Her second
child, Harry, was born on 29
November 1997, and died eight weeks later in January 1998.
The next month, Clark was arrested for murder. Still grieving, she was
accused of smothering
Christopher and shaking Harry to death. When she was found guilty in
November 1999, newspapers
ran claims that she was a binge-drinker - none of which was presented as
evidence in the case.
The forensic evidence at the trial was complicated and difficult to deal
with as the 'victims' were so
young. The evidence was also disputed and the prosecution case hotly
contested. But, as both
babies had died in Sally Clark's care, the defence could only put up her
word for it that the babies had
Solicitor John Batt has known Clark since she was five: 'What I believe the
jury's reaction was is: "If
she can prove that she did nothing to her babies, we'll let her off. If she
can't, she must be guilty." But
there is no way that a mother or science can prove that she didn't smother
or shake her babies.'
Like an arrow through the fog came the assertion by Meadow that there was
only a 'one in 73 million'
chance of a mother having two consecutive cot deaths - the likelihood of an
such an event happening,
he said, was once every 100 years.
Meadow is a knighted professor and, everyone agrees, a superb performer in
the witness box. It was a
statistical smoking gun. In one soundbite the jury had a com pelling case
against Clark. They
convicted her 10-2.
Meadow was knighted for his services to the study of child abuse. He was
the first President of the
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and developed a controversial
theory regarding a new
form of child abuse known as 'Munchausen's Syndrome By Proxy' where parents
of illnesses in their children, subjecting them to unnecessary medical
treatment, and, in some cases,
inflict injuries on them or even kill them in the process. For example a
mother who seeks attention by
murdering her baby and passing off the killing as a cot death.
Now, some experts contest the theory's merit. In his book ABC of Child
Abuse, Meadow writes: '"One
sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder
until proved otherwise" is a
crude aphorism but a sensible working rule for anyone encountering these
Meadow has given evidence for the prosecution in criminal trials and family
courts around the world.
Often, his evidence - with other testimony - leads to convictions and
mothers losing their babies to
No one is suggesting mothers never kill their babies. But Meadow's Law
risks tarring all mothers who
have suffered multiple cot deaths as murderers. It presumes guilt, and the
presumption kicks in at the
moment a second cot death occurs - when an innocent mother would be going
Many at the trial believe Meadow's soundbite statistic damned Clark. It was
worked out on the basis
that there are eight cot deaths a week in Britain. Then family
circumstances are factored in: a single
parent smoker is more likely to suffer a cot death than a well-off family.
The Clarks are solicitors and
When all these factors are taken into account, you arrive at a figure of
one cot death in 8,543 in a
well-off family like the Clarks.
As the Clarks suffered two deaths, Meadow multiplied 8,543 by 8,543 and
arrived at the chance of one
in 73 million for two babies dying of natural causes. He then specifically
linked the statistic with
Not a single statistician we have contacted has said that 'one in 73
million' - and the way in which
Meadow used it - is defensible.
Peter Donnelly, professor of statistical science at Oxford University, is
scathing: 'It is poor science.
It's not rigorous, it's just wrong.'
Dr Stephen Watkins, Stockport's director of public health, said: 'This is a
breach of a fundamental
axiom of probability theory... the equivalent of two plus two equals five.'
Watkins was so troubled by Meadow's evidence that he wrote a damning
critique in the British
Medical Journal called 'Conviction by Mathematical Error?' Meadow has not
replied to the attack.
Donnelly points out that a key issue is whether Meadow was right to
multiply the risk factors of the
two cot deaths to get to the one in 73 million number. 'It is only valid to
multiply the numbers if it has
been established whether or not one child dying of cot death is completely
independent of whether or
not another has died. In order to present that kind of number in court one
should have evidence to
establish that independence.'
What this means is that, for the one in 73 million to be right, the two
deaths had to be proved to be
wholly unconnected - for example that there were no environmental factors
common to both.
But, according to the prosecution, the two deaths were connected - and the
prosecution witness who
gave evidence on that? Sir Roy Meadow.
He told the jury: 'Each death has the characteristic of unnatural causes
which is enhanced by the fact
that two deaths have occurred at about the same age in one home. The
evidence sadly increases the
strength with which I feel that the two deaths are not natural.'
The defence did not use an expert statistician to challenge Meadow's
figure. This decision may have
cost Sally Clark dearly.
Clark is not the only alleged killer mum who was jailed with the help of
Meadow's evidence. Donna
Anthony is also serving a double life sentence in Durham Prison for
murdering her two babies. She
was convicted on forensic and behavioural evidence which, again, was
contested. Meadow told the
jury: 'Natural cot death has an incidence now of about one in a thousand,
so the chance of natural cot
death happening twice in a family is one in a thousand times one in a
thousand, which is one in a
We also know of a third case, but we cannot give details. Meadow's evidence
and other testimony led
to the family losing all four children to care. A gag on the media means we
cannot interview the
Last October, the Court of Appeal turned down Clark's first attempt to
clear her name. Clark's father,
retired police divisional commander Frank Lockyer, is convinced of his
daughter's innocence: 'She'd
have to be monster to do that and Sally's not a monster.'
In February Manchester University announced: 'Cot death gene identified.'
Scientists looked at the
DNA of 23 babies who had died from cot death or sudden infant death
syndrome (SIDS) and
compared it with the genetic make-up of normal babies. Babies with three
differences were three times more likely to die from SIDS. The genes
'switched on and off' the immune
system. One gene was particularly important.
We have put a series of questions to Meadow, but he declined to talk to us.
The question is: had the jury known in the case of Clark that, instead of
Meadow's sound-bite that there was a one in 73 million chance of her babies
dying naturally, it could have been one in four, would they have convicted?
. John Sweeney's '73 million to one' Five Live Report, produced by Bill
Law, is on R5 today at noon on 909 and 693m AM.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001