December 11, 2003

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 controversial paediatrician 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."

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