The Times                                                                                                  June 13, 2003

Trupti Patel and the rotten courts of Salem

By: Simon Jenkins

I am walking down the street when out of a sewer swirls a giant black tentacle, waving in my face. It is the ancient Britain lurking beneath the pavement, a place of primitive prejudice which nobody has the guts to reform. It keeps trying to claw the 21st century back to a foetid swamp of cruelty and unfairness. Along its ghastly surface are rows of suckers, called lawyers.

Yesterday one such tentacle wrapped itself round my brain. It was the Trupti Patel child murder acquittal. I realised that modern Britain is ruled by a Government that still throws mothers into jail if they are unlucky enough to have babies that die suddenly. Civilised countries regard such incidents as personal tragedies, not cause for a state lynching. In Sweden or Germany, even if the mother is guilty, she is given sympathy and treatment, not handled as a common murderer.

The courts of justice are the same as tried the Salem witches. They summon juries to pass public judgment on these wretched women, calling in aid a witch-finder general, the hawkish Professor Sir Roy Meadow. He has no time for classic jurisprudence. To him a mother is guilty unless “proven otherwise”. Two cot deaths are suspicious and three are murder. To hell with any genetic propensity to multiple deaths. This is to be tabloid justice. New Labour must stand tough on dead babies.

Mrs Patel was Sir Roy’s latest target. She had a healthy baby and was frantic on the death of their second child. She and her husband became cot death experts, purchasing copious monitoring equipment. After a second cot death, the desperate Mrs Patel conceived again and had doctors constantly examine and monitor her baby girl. When she died after just 22 days, her chest monitor failing to work, Mrs Patel’s attempts at resuscitation broke some of the baby’s ribs. This and her subsequent acute withdrawal inclined the Crown to prosecute her, in part for “bottling up her grief”.

This mother was acquitted with little thanks to science. Sir Roy has always been the darling of the prosecution in cot-death cases through his talent for plucking at the emotion of juries. The case swung Mrs Patel’s way only after her grandmother flew in from India to report on her own loss of five infants to cot death, which she put down to “God’s doing”. In 1999 Sally Clark had no such luck in her encounter with forensic medicine. She spent more than three years in jail before winning her release on appeal. Like Mrs Patel, Mrs Clark saved herself from life in jail only by dint of middle-class determination.

Sir Roy is said to possess the courtroom presence of Judge Danforth in Arthur Miller’s Salem witches play, The Crucible. He can whip any jury into finding these women guilty. His fancy theory of “Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy” holds that parents harm their children to draw attention to themselves. It convinces any jury understandably eager, when asked, to find someone to blame for a child’s death.

Sir Roy is now under (leisurely) investigation by the General Medical Council for his abuse of statistics in Mrs Clark’s trial. He claimed that her chances of being innocent were 73 million to one against, a figure considered crucial in sending her to jail. Yet she was clearly innocent and found so on appeal. Sir Roy’s figures were so palpably wrong that the Royal Statistical Society wrote to the Lord Chancellor to complain. Nothing was done. Instead the Crown has continued to use Sir Roy to convict women in such cases.

The system is rotten. In British trials experts are paid not to help the court with impartial evidence, as is customary in most other countries. They are paid to lend a veneer of objectivity to one side in the argument. The hope is that 12 good citizens, the jury, can dig out the truth from this melange of professional bias and emotion. It is theatre, not justice.

Angela Canning, an otherwise respectable woman, found herself jailed for life last year after the cot deaths of her two children, with Sir Roy appearing against her. She is in prison awaiting an appeal which is as tardy as the GMC’s investigation of Sir Roy. Five other mothers are known to be in jail after jury trials for multiple child deaths. Countless more have had their surviving children taken away from them.

John Batt, a solicitor now campaigning against these imprisonments, describes cases on his books in Glasgow, Hastings, Nottingham, Worcester, Hull, Cardiff and Winchester. “In each case,” he told The Times, “there was no previous history of abuse and all the friends and relatives say they were loving parents.” In each case, the Crown produced the same stage army of “child abuse experts” to give evidence against them.

I do not doubt that a very few parents kill their children deliberately. Such people are sick and need treatment. Where they have other children, these must be protected, usually by removing them from harm. I cannot see what is achieved by sending the mother to prison for life, except her final destruction. Even removing the children is a serious matter. The case of William and Michelle Carter, taken up by the London Evening Standard, saw all four children taken into care after one became sick, in what appears to be a witch-hunt by Sir Roy and Wandsworth Social Services. This was despite pleas from all who knew the couple, teachers, doctors, even the police, that they could have meant their children no harm.

Mrs Patel did not hurt her first child, whom she loves. She and her husband were not violent criminals but respectable people enduring the appalling trauma of seeing three children die. The prosecution case relied on the extraordinary thesis that Mrs Patel was having one child after another to satisfy a craving for murder. It told the jury to ignore her remorse since it was “an intention to kill that came to Mrs Patel in one moment and left her the next”.

I know such lawyers claim to be only role-playing, to be putting a case, however implausible, before the mercy of the jury. Perhaps Sir Roy is no more than playing a role too. Perhaps the whole system is a game of seeing how much public money can be spent on putting women in jail, which Britain does more than any country in Europe. If so, the system is inhuman and ludicrously inappropriate. The adversarial system, the distortion of evidence, the onus to prove innocence and the hyping of juries are all medieval and barbaric. From what I have read, all cot-death convictions involving Sir Roy’s evidence should be considered unsafe and those imprisoned released at once pending review.

Some may consider the Patel verdict a vindication of jury trial. That is rubbish. This was a rare case of a jury acquitting in a child murder case only because that case was utterly groundless. Normally juries, always bound by emotion, convict in such cases. Attempts by the Government to limit the jury system are being fought by barristers because juries are their Common Agricultural Policy, encouraging lucrative overproduction of trials.

The judicial system appears immune to reform, even by the recent, supposedly radical Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. Mrs Clark’s release in January led to pleas for a reform in the use of criminal courts for such cases. These pleas were ignored. The release coincided with another investigation into a child tragedy. The Climbie tribunal confronted an administrative failure, of inadequate, ill-led and frightened officials who “allowed” a girl to die at the hands of her guardians.

What happened next was instructive. Those involved in the Climbie case were castigated and personally destroyed by the tribunal. The Clark cot-death team were let off scot-free, living to fight another day, including the trial of Mrs Patel. I find it hard to disagree with those who claim government operates a double standard. Local government is treated as run by peasants who can be traduced at will. The judiciary is run by toffs, who can commit any malpractice they like.

Cot deaths should clearly be handled by an examining magistrate in chambers, as in Scandinavia and elsewhere. The hope is that yesterday’s apparent upheaval in the governance of the judiciary may lead to such a reform. I doubt it. The new “Constitution” Secretary, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the Prime Minister are still lawyers and lawyers are powerfully attached to territory. Their loyalty to the majesty of the courtroom is as medieval as their love of the adversarial joust. I cannot see Britain’s judicial Establishment allowing a handful of weeping women and wrecked families to erode their precious turf.

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