The London Telegraph

Review of 300 Child Deaths Identifies 28 Dubious Convictions

By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor, London Telegraph
(Filed: 22/12/2004)

A review of nearly 300 cases in which parents were convicted of killing their young children has identified 28 where there was "sufficient cause for concern to warrant further consideration", the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, told Parliament yesterday.

The Government's senior law officer said that it would be up to the defendants concerned to ask for their cases to be referred to the Court of Appeal. Nine of the 28 are still in custody.

Defendants who have already exhausted their rights of appeal may ask the Criminal Cases Review Commission to investigate their cases as suspected miscarriages of justice. The commission has the power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal.

Three pending prosecutions have already been abandoned "on the grounds that it was not safe to proceed".

A further 89 cases of "shaken baby syndrome" will be reconsidered in the light of a judgment from the Court of Appeal expected next year, Lord Goldsmith promised.

"The fact that a case has been referred as potentially unsafe does not amount to a concluded decision that it is," he said.

Nor was there any promise that an appeal would be unopposed by the Crown Prosecution Service. In January, Lord Goldsmith ordered a review of all cases in England and Wales in which a parent or carer had been convicted of killing a child under the age of two during the past 10 years.

His announcement was made on the day that the Court of Appeal gave its reasons for clearing Angela Cannings of murdering her two baby sons.

Mrs Cannings had claimed they were the victims of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome - SIDS, or "cot deaths". She was the third mother to be cleared of killing her babies in such circumstances last year: Trupti Patel was acquitted in June 2003 and Sally Clark won her appeal in January. Prof Sir Roy Meadow, the controversial paediatrician, gave evidence for the prosecution in each case.

Lord Goldsmith said yesterday that three of the 28 potentially unsafe cases were cot deaths, analogous to the case of Mrs Cannings.

Allowing her appeal in January, Lord Justice Judge had said it would be unsafe to proceed where the outcome depended on a serious disagreement between reputable experts.

The remaining 25, though not SIDS cases, also involved a disagreement between experts on key issues such as the cause or timing of death, Lord Goldsmith told peers. "For example, in one case the issue was whether the cause of death was a fall or a blow. It was apparent that there was an injury to the infant's head," he said.

"In other cases, the medical evidence relates to the state of health or mental state of the defendant, and that can be important particularly where a plea of guilty has been entered."

Eight of the 25 cases involved shaken baby syndrome, Lord Goldsmith added. In these cases, unlike SIDS, there was clear physical evidence of the cause of death, but the issue was whether or not the injuries were accidental.

Some experts now believe bleeding between the brain and the skull in babies can be caused by lack of oxygen rather than trauma, although others disagree.

Lord Goldsmith disclosed that the Court of Appeal was planning to examine three cases of shaken baby syndrome.

However, the appeals will not be heard until next summer at the earliest. Apart from the eight suspected miscarriages of justice, there are another 89 cases of shaken baby syndrome that will have to be considered in the light of any guidance from the appeal judges in their judgment on the test cases.

"Young and vulnerable children need the protection of the law," Lord Goldsmith said.

"Yet if unfair accusations or, worse still, wrongful convictions for the death of a child occur, it increases the tragedy of what is already a devastating event."

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