Case opens a can of worms
THE release yesterday of
Angela Cannings is likely to give fresh hope to mothers in a number of similar
cases where evidence has been provided by Professor Sir Roy Meadow. The
has been used as an expert witness in many cases and is viewed as a persuasive
speaker in court.
However, his once impeccable reputation today lies, if
not quite in ruins, then certainly badly damaged. Mrs Cannings, set free by an
appeal court yesterday after it cleared her of murdering her two baby sons, is
the third woman to have suffered disgrace, heartbreak, and imprisonment partly
on the strength of Professor Meadow's flawed evidence.
The General Medical Council (GMC) is now investigating
him, and the government has ordered a review of the procedures used for
investigating mothers accused of murdering their own babies.
In the light of the cases of Angela Cannings, Sally
Clark, and Trupti Patel, his observation that "one sudden infant death is a
tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder, unless proven otherwise"
(which became known as Meadow's Law) must surely now be considered dubious.
The first case of what he called "Munchausen's
syndrome by proxy" was documented by Professor Meadow in The Lancet in
August 1977. At the time, Munchausen's syndrome,
though rare, was a recognised psychiatric condition. It was a term used to
describe a condition in which people physically harm themselves in order to gain
sympathy and/or attention.
However, Professor Meadow took it one step further.
Munchausen's syndrome by proxy (MSBP) typically applied to cases where mothers
harmed, and often killed, their own children in order to seek attention from
doctors, he wrote.
In 1993, he brought MSBP into the public domain as a
witness during the trial of Beverley Allitt, the nurse convicted of killing four
children in her charge.
Six years later, Mrs Clark, a Cheshire solicitor, was
accused of killing her two baby sons, Christopher and Harry. At her trial,
Professor Meadow notoriously declared that the chances of her losing two babies
to cot death were 73 million to one. Although found guilty, she always protested
her innocence and, earlier this year, won her freedom after the Appeal Court
quashed her conviction.
Professor Meadow's astonishing assertion prompted the
Royal Statistical Society to take the unprecedented step of writing to the lord
chancellor, stating there was "no statistical basis" for the figure.
His claim was criticised as "grossly
misleading" and "manifestly wrong" by a judge during Mrs Clark's
second, successful, appeal.
Then, in June, there was the case of Trupti Patel, the
35-year-old pharmacist from Berkshire, who was cleared of smothering to death
her baby sons, Amar and Jamie, and baby daughter Mia. Once again, Professor
Meadow gave evidence at her trial and said it would be very unusual to have
three cot deaths in one family.
Both acquittals gave hope to Mrs Cannings, 40, a shop
assistant from Salisbury, Wiltshire, who was found guilty at Winchester Crown
Court last year of the murders of her baby sons, Jason and Matthew. She
was jailed for life but, like Mrs Clark and Mrs Patel, she always insisted her
babies were the victims of cot death.
Tory MP George Osborne, in whose Tatton constituency
Mrs Clark lived at the time of her trial, called for the scrapping of murder
prosecutions against mothers whose young children died in such circumstances.
He added that there should be an immediate review of
all cases involving Professor Meadow.
The Crown Prosecution Service pointed out yesterday
that Professor Meadow did not use statistics in either the Patel or the Cannings
trials. Asked whether he would be called again
as a witness, a spokeswoman said: "There is no professional body that has
found against Professor Meadow that we are aware of. It would depend on the case
and what the evidence was whichever expert was chosen."
The GMC confirmed it was
investigating Professor Meadow, but declined to release any further details. A
spokes-woman said: "We are investigating Professor Meadow. We will decide
what action, if any, needs to be taken."
John Batt, a solicitor who worked as part of Sally
Clark's defence team for four years, said there was now a question mark over
similar cases involving Professor Meadow.
He said: "He has given evidence, I understand,
that is very similar to the evidence in these three cases which have been
overturned now in the courts "This must
raise a question mark about the other cases in which he claims to have
identified mothers murdering their babies."