Up to 40 child-killing convictions in doubt

Submitted by Editor on Tue, 14/09/2004 - 13:39

Up to 40 women jailed for killing their babies could have their convictions overturned after a government review cast doubt on their sentences.

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent

13 September 2004

Almost 300 convictions of murder and manslaughter of babies under two years of age over the past 10 years were examined, and the review - prompted by the Angela Cannings verdict - found that the convictions of one in seven mothers were questionable.

The numbers are much higher than expected and lawyers believe that, had the review had a wider remit, many other women would also have grounds to appeal against their convictions.

Mrs Cannings was cleared in the Court of Appeal in December 2003 of killing her two sons because her conviction was founded on conflicting expert medical evidence. The review, led by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, was set up to examine other cases where experts disagreed.

Lord Goldsmith has now written to 24 solicitors inviting them to refer their clients' cases to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. At least 14 further cases are being recommended for appeal after government lawyers found that their convictions were founded on conflicting expert medical evidence.

A spokeswoman for Lord Goldsmith said: "We have written to the solicitors or the defendants saying that there may be grounds for appeal." But she said that it was up to each defendant to decide whether they wanted to go back to court.

Only a small proportion of the mothers considered suitable for appeal include defendants who are still in prison. Many of them may decide that there is nothing to be gained from going back to the courts to reopen their cases.

The Attorney General's spokeswoman said the names of the mothers contacted would remain confidential. "It is up to them to put their names in the public domain," she said.

But defence lawyers said yesterday that the review's narrow terms of reference meant that many other defendants were being denied the chance of an appeal.

After the critical judgment in the case of Mrs Cannings, the Attorney General said that only cases in which there was "serious disagreement between distinguished and reputable experts" would be recommended for appeal

John Batt, a member of the defence team who successfully campaigned for the release of Sally Clark, cleared in January 2003 of murdering her two sons, said: "So many people involved in the prosecution of Sally Clark got so many things wrong. The truth is that the doctors and prosecution generally just drove a coach and horses through what anyone would think was a fair trial, which is why I believe the number of wrongful convictions is much more than one in seven." He added: "The Sally Clark case was simply indicative of the laxity of approach in these cases."

Before Mrs Cannings' appeal, the cases of Mrs Clark and the pharmacist Trupti Patel, acquitted of the murder of her three babies, had already highlighted the uncertainties faced by experts in determining the cause of death when babies die suddenly.

Evidence from one prosecution expert, the retired paediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow, was a key factor in each case. Known for espousing the controversial rule of thumb that "unless proven otherwise, one cot death is tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder", he proved a compelling witness in each case.

But in the Cannings judgement Lord Justice Judge said that although the court recognised that three sudden infant deaths in one family was "very rare or very rare indeed", the fact that they occurred did "not identify, let alone prescribe, the deliberate infliction of harm as the cause of death
.
Last week an 18-month inquiry by the Royal College of Pathologists and the Royal College of Paediatrics recommended sweeping changes to the investigation of sudden infant deaths to protect children and prevent parents from being wrongly accused of murder.

The report said that every cot death should be fully investigated and greater scrutiny introduced of expert witnesses in court cases.

Without naming any individual paediatrician, the report said: "Those regularly involved in child abuse can find it hard to be dispassionate and indeed sometimes become hawkish." It said witnesses have sometimes relied on "medical belief" rather than scientific evidence and that the adversarial nature of the legal system has pushed them into being over-confident of their conclusions.

"It is also important that the courtroom is not ... used by doctors to fly their personal kites or push a theory from the far end of the medical spectrum."

The report said that judges should order a pre-trial hearing to establish areas of agreement and disagreement between expert witnesses so that a judgment can be made of whether the case should proceed to court. Any expert giving evidence should have recent clinical experience and peer-reviewed research and should not go outside their area of expertise, it says.

Mr Batt, author of Stolen Innocence, about Sally Clark, hoped that the Attorney General would consider widening the review so that cot death convictions based on a single expert's testimony would be referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

SOURCE: http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/crime/story.jsp?story=561040

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