This is the transcript of a BBC Radio5 documentary, "73 million to one,"
presented by John Sweeney, July 15, 2000
These cot-death convictions
are just plain wrong
Today we raise the possibility of an appalling number of miscarriages of
justice. Sally Clark's recorded voice: "I now face the minute-by-minute
torture of life imprisonment, knowing I did not harm my little boys." Paul
Sykes: "That sentence is not rigorous. It's just wrong. You have lost
faith in the British judicial system?" - "Absolutely. My faith in the
system is just destroyed."
The discovery of a cot death gene this spring means that innocent mothers
who have suffered the unbearable pain of double cot deaths may have been
jailed for murders that never actually happened. Recorded voice again:
"I'm Sally Clark. I'm 36 years of age. I'm a solicitor. I have been
married to Stephen Clark, who is also a solicitor, for nearly 11 years We
had three children, all of them boys. Christopher, my first-born, and
Harry, my second little boy, are no longer alive. My third son is nearly
two-and-a-half years old. I am able to see him, just the two of us, for
one wonderful day every month."
That was the haunting voice of Sally Clark, now in prison serving a double
life sentence for the cruellest crime imaginable, murdering her own baby
boys, Christopher, aged three months, and Harry, aged two months. She
could spend the rest of her life in prison for the double murder she says
she did not commit.
When she was found guilty in November 99, the papers had a field day. They
ran claims that she was a binge drinker, none of which had come before the
court. The Sunday Mirror: "Fall from grace for the woman with
everything;" the Daily Mail, "Driven by drink and despair, the solicitor
who killed her babies;" and the local evening paper, the Manchester
Evening News: "Pregnant days after murdering baby son."
It was a classic media witch-burning. Steve Clark, Sally's husband, who
stood by her: "Reading the newspapers, how they reported her after the
conviction you would think Sally Clark was a witch. Well, she isn't, 90%
of what was said in the newspapers was totally and utterly untrue."
Sally's first child, Christopher, was born in September 96 and died three
months later. At the time he was certified to have died naturally from a
lung infection. Her second child Harry was born in November 97 and died in
January 98; the next month, Sally was arrested for murder. She was
accused of smothering baby Christopher and shaking baby Harry to death.
At her trial Professor Sir Roy Meadow told the jury that there was only a
one in 73 million chance of Sally having two cot deaths, an event, he said,
that would happen once every hundred years. It was a devastating sound-
bite and the jury convicted her ten to two.
Professor Meadow is the inventor of Munchausen's by Proxy, the
controversial theory that some mothers harm or even murder their babies to
seek attention. We asked him to appear on this programme but he declined.
He has, however, given a rare interview to an American film maker: "You
just have to recognise there are some mothers and fathers who have enormous
difficulties, often through no fault of their own, who do terrible things
to their children but as a paediatrician you don't hate them, you hate what
has happened to the child. Sometimes it makes me physically sick when I
get involved with a case. I'm just not eating. I vomit. I'm so upset."
Sir Roy has been 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 is the author of The ABC of Child Abuse, the leading textbook in
the area. His mind-set is encapsulated by the following saying, quoted in
this book: "One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, and
three is murder until proved otherwise. A crude aphorism but a sensible
working rule for anyone encountering these tragedies."
You could call "unless proven otherwise two is suspicious and three is
murder" Meadow's Law.
No-one is suggesting that mothers never kill their babies, but Professor
Meadow's crude aphorism is now used as a rule of thumb by doctors, police
and social workers.
It risks tarring all mothers who have suffered multiple cot deaths as
murderers. It presumes guilt, not innocence. And the presumption of guilt
kicks in at the very moment a second cot death occurs when an innocent
mother would be going through unendurable pain. Mothers like Sue Sale:
she lost two babies to cot death in the 1980's before Meadow's Law had
become established wisdom.. She picked up her baby knowing he was dead,
knowing he was the second to die. "I didn't want to have to let him go
because I thought, if I ring people they're going to try and take him away,
and I couldn't believe that this could have happened again to me. It was
the most awful, dreadful, shock."
The deaths were investigated but Sue Sale was never charged. After all,
she had done nothing wrong. Since then the climate has changed
dramatically. Professionals are advised, be suspicious and think dirty.
Is it possible that today the odds could be stacked against an innocent
mother who has suffered two cot deaths but has not harmed her children in
In the Sally Clark case the forensic evidence was hotly contested and this
was a murder trial where, let us remember, the standard of proof ought to
be beyond reasonable doubt. Enter Meadow's sound-bite of one chance in 73
million for two babies dying naturally.
Prosecuting barrister Robin Spencer asked Sir Roy, "So is this right? Not
only would the chance be one in 73 million but in addition in these two
deaths there are features which would be regarded as suspicious in any
event?" And Sir Roy answered: "I believe so."
It was a smoking gun statistic. In one sound bite you had a compelling
case against Sally Clark.
To get to the figure family circumstances are factored in. A single-parent
smoker is more likely to suffer a cot death than a middle class family like
Clark's. So you arrive at a figure of one cot death in 8,500 in a family
like Sally's. The Clarks suffered two deaths. Professor Meadow multiplied
8,500 by 8,500 and arrived at the chance of one in 73 million.
"It is to Probability Theory the equivalent of what to arithmetic would be
saying that two plus two equals five" - Dr Stephen Watkins, Director of
Public Health, Stockport. He was so troubled by Professor Sir Roy Meadow's
evidence that he wrote a damning critique in the BMJ. "I felt I had to
write that. The way Sir Roy Meadow had used statistics was completely
wrong. He had calculated the probability of one specified individual
having two cot deaths. The actual figure he should have calculated was the
probability of some person having two cot deaths." It may not happen to
you, yes, but it will happen to someone. "I'll give you an example. The
probability of me winning the lottery this Saturday is very low. But the
probability of somebody winning the lottery this Saturday is quite high.
And what Sir Roy is doing is exactly the equivalent of saying that whoever
wins the lottery must have committed fraud because of the low probability
of that individual winning the lottery."
Dr Watkins has a vivid memory of where he was when the news broke of Sir
Roy's sound-bite "I was actually having a dinner with three other public
health doctors at the time that we heard this figure reported on the
television and the reaction of each of the four of us was that this is a
misuse of statistics. This is wrong. This is not correct evidence."
Dr Watkins' is not a lone voice. Peter Donnelly is professor of
Statistical Science at Oxford University. He points out that a key issue
was whether Sir Roy was right to multiply the risk factors of the two
deaths to get to the one in 73 million number. "It is only valid
statistically to multiply the numbers if it has been established that
whether or not one child dies in a household of cot death is completely
independent of whether or not a other child dies in the household. In
order to present that kind of number in court one should have evidence that
establishes that independence."
By independence Professor Donnelly means that for the one in 73 million
number to be right the two deaths have to be proved to be wholly
unconnected. For example, that there were no environmental factors in
common. "It's just wrong scientifically to multiply those two numbers
together unless the independence has been established. If it hasn't, then
it's at best speculation and depending on the circumstances of the case,
possibly extremely misleading. It's poor science."
How rigorous is it?
"Unless the independence has been established, it's wrong. In that sense
it's not rigorous, it's just wrong."
So the Crown's case contained a hidden contradiction. Sir Roy would have
had to assume that the two deaths were not connected but the two deaths
were connected . . . so said Professor Meadow to the court. Sir Roy was
having his cake and eating it. The defence did not use an expert
statistician to challenge Sir Roy's figure, intent as it was on attacking
the forensic evidence. This decision may have cost Sally Clark dear.
But how could a distinguished scientist like Sir Roy make such a mistake?
Dr Stephen Watkins: "I think he has used techniques which lay beyond his
Dr Watkins' article in the British Medical Journal which attacked Sir Roy's
use of statistics was called "Conviction by mathematical error?"
Professor Sir Roy Meadow has not replied to the attack. No statistician we
have contacted has said that the one in 73 million figure in the way that
Sir Roy used it is defensible. The damage to Sally Clark was that it
presented to the jury, confronted as it was with a mass of complicated
conflicting forensic evidence, a simple but false certainty.
Last October the Court of Appeal turned down Sally Clark's first attempt to
clear her name. The court ruled that the 73 million figure used at the
criminal trial was a sideshow. But Five Life Report has been told by a
source that one juror has said, "Whatever you say about Sally Clark, you
can't get around the one in 73 million figure."
In May this year the Solicitors' Tribunal met to decide whether Sally
Clark, a convicted double murderer, should be struck off. Normally this
would be a rubber stamp This is part of her plea, presented at the
tribunal on video tape: "I was advised before my trial that if I put in a
plea of infanticide I would probably serve no term of imprisonment. I am
where I am today because I could not tell any lies. I did not lie then and
I cannot lie now even if it would procure my immediate release." The
solicitors' tribunal decided only to suspend her.
This unique decision reflects growing anxiety about the soundness of her
conviction. Others are convinced a great wrong has been done. Frank
Lockyer is Sally's father; he is a retired divisional commander of
Wiltshire police. "There is a photograph of her standing there with her
mother. There's a photograph of them both with her first child,
Christopher. People who look at photographs and videos of Sally at the
time with her children say we don't want to see any more; the body
language of relationships . . . I mean to say, if that woman . . . I can't
tell you . . . could murder that child. It's ridiculous. I'm sorry, but
it's just ridiculous. You know, she'd have to be a monster. She's no
Brian Lowry is emeritus professor of medical genetics and paediatrics at
the University of Calgary, Canada. What does he think of Meadow's Law? "I
think that's frankly wrong, and most misleading and it's time someone
challenged that viewpoint. In transcripts he's quoted as saying that each
death has the characteristics of unnatural causes, which is enhanced by the
fact that two deaths have occurred about the same age in one home. Well,
that could just as easily be genetic and to quote that in the prosecution,
I think, is shocking."
Dr Ian Rushton is a retired paediatric pathologist with 40 years'
experience carrying out autopsies on infants. He was called for the
defence in the Sally Clark case. "I feel very uneasy about the problems
that mothers who lose two or three babies have at the moment, because they
are basically in a situation where they have to prove their innocence by
obtaining medical information to counteract a theory. The problem is that
there is as present knowledge stands no such evidence."
Enter the University of Manchester: this year they announced "Cot death
gene identified." Scientists looked at the DNA of 23 babies who died from
cot deaths or sudden infant death syndrome - SIDS for short. They compared
it to the genetic make-up of normal babies. In some cot death babies they
found a common gene. "The microbiology we did finding that babies with cot
deaths more likely to have bacteria that produced poisonous substances such
as toxins is what actually made us think of particular genes."
Dr David Drucker, Reader in microbiology at Manchester University, and one
of the team that tracked down the cot death gene. Dr Drucker has been
working on cot deaths for 15 years. The others include Prof. Ian Hutchinson
and a husband-and-wife team of scientists who have suffered their own cot-
death tragedy. More discoveries will follow. "In terms of applying it to
cot death it's almost as though we had opened a door to a new room and we
have really just taken one step inside it at the moment and we're waiting
to explore what is that room."
What does Dr Drucker think of Meadow's Law, that unless proven otherwise,
two is suspicious and three is murder? "I would say it is really
scientifically illiterate, because as a microbiologist in particular I can
think of all sorts of diseases connected with bacteria where, if one member
of the family is ill, you can't just assume that for any other member the
odds are the same as they were for the first person who was ill. We know
from experience that every time there is a flu epidemic, if one person is
ill, it is actually more likely that another member of the family would
So what is the significance of the discovery of a cot death gene on Prof
Meadow's smoking-gun statistic? Professor Lowry: "I think it is absolute
rubbish to say the one in 73 million chance because in fact Sally Clark's
second chance might have been as high as one-in-four so the way they
misused the statistic is atrocious."
A chance of one-in-four as a statistic is at the extreme end of the scale
where both parents carry the cot-death gene, but it is possible. More
likely are odds hugely less remote than one in 73 million. The cot death
gene provides fresh evidence that speaks not to murder but to innocence.
It turns the Sally Clark case inside out; what was black becomes white.
The implications for justice of Manchester University's breakthrough don't
just stop with Sally Clark. That's because Prof Sir Roy Meadow testified
for the prosecution in many criminal trials and family courts. I asked
paediatric pathologist Dr Ian Rushton what happens if Meadow's Law is
"Well if the theory is wrong, then obviously there would have to be a total
rethink and presumably all the past cases would have to be reviewed."
Until now Meadow's Law is a criminal theory, to which there has been no
easy way out. " From the jury's point of view there are three things that
happen. First of all, there is a mother in the dock; what is she doing
there if she didn't do anything wrong? Secondly, there are two dead
babies; the mother cannot deny that. And thirdly there is a learned
professor who says either these deaths were not natural or they are murder.
Now that effectively shifts the burden of proof straight on to the mother.
What I believe the jury's common-sense reaction is, if she can prove that
she did nothing to her babies we'll let her off; if she can't she must be
How can a mother defend her innocence? "It is medically impossible,
absolutely impossible, to prove that a baby has not been smothered. Think
about that for a moment. You can never prove that a baby has not been
Sally Clark is not the only alleged killer-mum who was jailed with the help
of evidence of Prof Sir Roy Meadow. Donna Anthony is also serving a double
life sentence for murdering her two babies. She is in Durham Prison. She
was convicted on forensic and character-witness evidence which again was
contested. Donna Anthony, who had an appalling childhood, is no Sally
Clark. She is not a solicitor and cut a desperately poor figure in the
witness box. Roy Meadow told the jury that there was a one-in-a-million
chance of the two babies dying naturally.
He testified: "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-million. It
is extraordinarily unlikely, and of course neither of these two deaths
fitted the criteria of what most experts would call cot death or sudden
infant death syndrome."
The method Sir Roy used to arrive at one-in-a-million is the same as that
used in the one-in-73 million number - the difference being that Donna
Anthony was a working-class smoker. And that method is just plain wrong.
George Hawkes was Donna Anthony's solicitor
"I still worry about it now, and it's nearly three years on. that there
was not any direct evidence that she had done anything to her children;
there was not a single mark on them and pathologists said they couldn't
find any cause of death, and five years before that, that would have been
the end of the matter. It's really only the advent of Prof Meadow coming
in and being involved in a number of these cases that Donna Anthony seems
to me to have been caught up in a snowball effect where - I don't want to
make light of it - it is almost becoming fashionable to prosecute in these
particular situations. It's a sort of gathering force."
Five Live Report knows of a third case, but we can't give any of the
details. Prof Sir Roy Meadow's evidence as well as other testimony led to
the family losing all four children to care. Because of a family court gag
on the media we cannot interview the parents. We know of many other cases
Susie Sale has followed the Sally Clark case and others very closely, and
now champions their cause. She believes that what happened to them
happened to her. "I think about her quite often, actually, because I know
that there but for the grace of God it could have been me in that
situation, and I know how awful I felt losing those boys and what a
terrible, terrible thing . . . it's such a blight on your life; your life
is never the same again."
What about this principle which is supposed to be in British justice of
"I wish we could think they took that into account. There wasn't any
concrete evidence, I think, that says that she actually killed those
Because if the one in 73 million statistic is true - "then I killed my
children and I know I haven't. My husband knows I haven't killed my
children, my family, my relatives, the whole town where I live, know it. I
know now there was nothing I could have done to prevent what happened. I
didn't miss an illness or whatever. So I'm at peace with myself but I
think that if I was in another town, another part of the country, I could
have been in that situation."
For the friends of Sally Clark, the discovery of a cot death gene provides
John Batt [the solicitor who represented her before the solicitors'
tribunal]: "Genetics was never a factor at Sally's trial. The discovery
of a new gene in Manchester is entirely new, it is fresh evidence, and it
is clearly at a very early stage in its development. I have no doubt that
genetics will play a very large part in Sally's application to the Criminal
Cases Review Commission."
Five Live Report has put a series of questions to Sir Roy Meadow about his
theory, his one-in-73 million sound-bite and Meadow's Law; he declined to
take part in this programme Had the jury known in the case of Sally Clark
that instead of Sir Roy's evidence that there was a one-in-73 million
chance of her babies dying naturally it could conceivably have been one-in-
four, would they have convicted her?
"If it can happen to us, what chance has an ordinary couple in a council
estate got? or a single mother in Brixton got?"
If Meadow's Law is fatally flawed then there has not been one miscarriage
of justice but a great number. ruining the lives of dozens of people who
have been in prison or had their babies taken from them for nothing more
than having the wrong genes. Perhaps Home Secretary David Blunkett might
consider this: That the law should approach grieving mothers with a new,
crude aphorism: that, in the absence of compelling evidence of murder, one
cot death is a tragedy, and two is a tragedy, and three is a tragedy.