A jury gives its verdict on Meadow's Law

A jury gives its verdict on Meadows Law

By Eric Roberts, reporter






Eric Roberts is a reporter at the Yorkshire Post.

This article was previously published in the Yorkshire Post on June 12, 2003.
The copyright belongs to the Yorkshire Post of the UK.

The article is published here with the kind permission of the Editor and the Author.






The acquittal of Trupti Patel on charges of killing three of her babies has cast further doubt on the expert evidence of Leeds paediatrician Sir Roy Meadow. Eric Roberts reports.


PROFESSOR Sir Roy Meadow should be tending the garden of his home in Weeton, north of Leeds, as he enjoys his retirement after a distinguished career as a paediatrician. Instead, he finds himself once more at the centre of controversy, after the expert evidence he gave against Mrs Trupti Patel, on trial for murdering her three babies, was rejected by the jury. Yesterday, as no-one took calls at his home, it appeared as if at least six other cases of mothers convicted of murder in which Sir Roy was involved may be reviewed. Particular scorn has been poured on his assertion during the trial in 1999 of solicitor Sally Clark, wrongfully convicted of killing two of her babies, that the odds of losing two of her babies to Sudden Death Infant Syndrome were one in 73 million.


Mrs Clark's conviction was overturned by the

Appeal Court
in January, and yesterday her husband Stephen said he was astonished that Sir Roy should have been chosen as the chief expert witness for the prosecution again in the Patel case.


 Sir Roy's view that one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder has become known as Meadow's Law, and his evidence before the Clark case had always been accepted virtually without question by police, prosecutors and courts. But he himself has admitted that the one in 73 million figure he quoted was wrong; the figure is nearer one in a hundred, and where genetic factors are involved, the odds could be as low as one in four.


 Now the General Medical Council is looking into whether we need to take action against him.


 It's more than 25 years since Sir Roy, now 70, first coined the term Munchhausen's syndrome by proxy to describe a particular form of child abuse. In most cases, this is a mother inventing symptoms and fabricating signs in relation to her child, thus causing the child painful and unnecessary physical examinations and treatments.


 Beverley Allitt, the multiple child killer from GranthamHospital, was said to be suffering from the condition.


 Formerly professor of paediatrics and child health at St James's UniversityHospital, Leeds, Sir Roy was president of the British Paediatric Association from 1994 to 1997.


 In a study entitled Unnatural Sudden Infant Deaths, published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, Sir Roy dropped a bombshell, suggesting that doctors and coroners were helping abusive parents to get away with murder.


Under pressure to resolve unexplained cases swiftly and without controversy, they were resorting to diagnoses of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome: SIDS has been used, at times, as a pathological diagnosis to evade awkward truths, he wrote.


 He backed his assertion with evidence, gathered over 18 years, of 81 children judged by family and criminal courts to have been killed by their parents. In 49 of the cases, the children had initially been certified as dying from SIDS, or cot death, and the mother was found responsible for the death, usually smothering, in more than 80 per cent of cases.


 But grave doubts have subsequently been cast on Sir Roy's research techniques and expertise. The

Appeal Court
judges in the Sally Clark case described his evidence as grossly misleading and manifestly wrong; but he was still the man the prosecutors in the Patel case turned to for his expert opinion.


 The Royal Statistical Society has written to the Lord Chancellor suggesting that statistical experts should be used in future similar trials.


 Among the cases in which Sir Roy was involved which are now due for review is that of Donna Anthony, who is serving life for smothering her two babies in 1998. In this case, Sir Roy said the chance of two natural cot deaths occurring in her family was one in a million; other experts said the odds were one in 8,500.


 Apart from cases where a mother has been sentenced for murdering her children, other parents have had children taken away after Sir Roy gave evidence in cases of cot deaths involving their families.


 About 600 children a year die suddenly and unexpectedly between their first week of life and their first birthday. A clear medical reason is found in about half these cases, leaving the rest to be labelled as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But those parents who suffer a second or third cot death draw special attention from the medical profession and the police, who use the statistical arguments put forward by experts like Sir Roy as the main plank of their argument.


 But Dr Bill Hunt, from the Royal College of Pathologists, says there is increasing evidence that there is a genetic abnormality in a number of these cases - We don't know how many - and Dr Richard Wilson, a paediatrician and trustee of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths says families who have lost one infant to cot death are at increased risk of losing others, although it's still not clear why this might be happening.


 The NSPCC is among those calling for a different way of dealing with sudden unexplained deaths in infants, with public judicial inquests rather than adversarial trials.


 And Dr Wilson says the whole coroners' system needs to change: They are not set up to find a natural cause of death, and the majority of these deaths are through natural causes.


 Sir Roy's style in the witness box is described as softly-spoken but persuasive, and there is no doubt that until the Patel case, he had an enormous power to sway juries. Whether his theories have been overtaken by genetic research remains to be seen.





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