New doubts over double cot death conviction
New evidence has emerged casting doubt on the safety of the conviction of 'double cot death murderer' Sally Clark, who could spend 15 years in prison for killing her two children.
The jury that convicted Clark in November 1999 was told there was a '73 million to one' chance of her two baby boys' dying of cot deaths - a conclusion that a world expert on infant death has condemned as 'potentially misleading and dangerous'.
Despite losing an appeal a year after the original conviction, the 37-year-old solicitor has consistently pleaded her innocence of the killings of Christopher and Harry Clark. Christopher died on 13 December 1996, aged 11 weeks, and Harry on 26 January 1998, aged eight weeks.
An investigation by The Observer and Radio 4 has discovered that before the trial, the Crown's star witness, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, shredded a database on which key elements of his evidence were based.
And it has emerged that both Clark's boys died at the height of lung infection epidemics - crucial information that no one knew at the time of her trial.
Dr Douglas Fleming of the Royal College of General Practitioners has studied reports from GPs around the country over the five-year period during which the two boys died.
'Both babies died during epidemics. Christopher died just short of a five-year peak. Harry died at a lower peak, but still at a time of statistically significant infection. There is no way that Sally Clark could have known this.'
The original autopsy finding on Christopher was death by lung infection. Fleming and other experts have questioned why this finding was changed after Harry died.
At her trial, Clark's defence was that her babies died for reasons unknown to medical science - possibly cot death.
The Crown presented no evidence that Clark was a bad mother with a history of violence against her children. Instead, the jury heard a welter of contradictory medical evidence that she had shaken or smothered her babies to death - charges virtually impossible to disprove.
Key evidence for the prosecution was Meadow's assertion that the chance of two cot deaths in that family were one in 73 million.
A past president of the Royal College of Child Health, Meadow has lectured Britain's judges on how to interpret medical evidence. He is the discoverer of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, the theory that some mothers harm or kill their children to gain attention for themselves. And he is the promoter of what some call Meadow's Law - that unless proven otherwise, 'one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder'.
To arrive at the 73 million-to-one odds, Meadow quoted a government report that took the risk factor of one middle-class, non-smoking mother losing one baby to cot death - one in 8,500 - and squared it.
In the current issue of the British Medical Journal, Meadow defends his use of the statistic and attacks 'the mad, the bad and the misinformed'. Meadow endorses the Crown's pathological case that there was physical damage to both babies: 'heavy morphological evidence'.
The defence accepted no such thing. Jem Berry, professor of paediatric pathology at Bristol University, told the trial: 'Virtually every single finding in the reports that I have been able to confirm myself has either not been there in the microscope slides or has been misinterpreted.'
In a BBC report last year, Peter Donnelly, professor of statistical science at Oxford University, was scornful of applying the 73 million-to-one statistic to the Clark case. He said: 'It's not rigorous. It's just plain wrong.'
Donnelly said it was only possible to multiply the two risk factors if the two deaths were not connected by any linking cause. When both children have the same mother this is impossible to prove, and ignores the chance of a genetic predisposition to cot death. Last year, Manchester University's Dr David Drucker published research claiming the existence of 'a cot death gene'.
Now a new voice has joined the controversy. Peter Fleming, professor of child health at Bristol University, wrote the government report that first mentioned the one-in-73 million figure. He said: 'This statistic was never intended as an estimate of real risk. It was never meant to suggest that this was an unnatural occurrence.
'This statistic is of no relevance to a jury trying to understand whether babies had died naturally or unnaturally. It was used completely out of context and so, without explaining how it was arrived at, it is potentially misleading and dangerous.'
It has also emerged that Meadow destroyed a database on which he based some of the evidence he put to the Clark trial. In the spring of 1999, he told the committal: 'I have material on which I have founded my evidence. The cases extend back over a period of 20 years.'
The defence wanted to know more about the database, which Meadow says details 81 cases of cot death that subsequently proved to be murders. On 2 July 1999 he wrote to the Crown Prosecution Service: 'I retired from my academic and clinical post in Leeds last September, at which time all confidential research material which might allow identification of individuals was shredded.'
On 10 August 1999 the CPS wrote to the defence saying: 'It now seems that most of the raw material on which Sir Roy's paper was based has been destroyed.'
From The Observer [Original article]
(c) Guardian Newspapers Limited.