Donna Anthony was given new hope yesterday. The 30-year-old from Yeovil, Somerset, is serving two life sentences at the high security Durham jail for murdering her two children, a crime she maintains she did not commit.

Yesterday she learnt that hers is one of hundreds of cases to be reviewed after a decision by the Attorney General. Scores of suspicious cot deaths going back 10 years in which parents were convicted of killing their children are to be urgently reviewed because of fears that the convictions may be unsafe.

The move came as the Court of Appeal called for a moratorium on prosecutions of parents in cot death cases where there was a disagreement between experts over the cause.

The ruling will cause turmoil among doctors by raising doubts about the accuracy of medical diagnoses. The Court of Appeal, giving reasons for its decision last month to clear Angela Cannings of murdering her two baby sons, said medical science was "still at the frontiers of knowledge" about sudden infant death syndrome and it could not be relied on to identify the cause.

Mrs Anthony was jailed for life in 1998 for murdering her 11-month-old daughter, Jordan, in 1996 and four-month-old son, Michael, in 1997. Doctors at first believed Jordan was a victim of cot death but when Michael died, experts helped build a case that she had smothered both of them.

One of those experts was Professor Sir Roy Meadow, the paediatrician whose evidence helped to secure the convictions of parents in a series of high-profile cot death cases. He told the jury in the Anthony case that it was "beyond comprehension" that both babies could have suffered cot death and there was a one in a million chance that the children had died from natural causes.

Ms Anthony's solicitor, George Hawks, said: "Sir Roy helped build the case against Donna. Without him she would never have been charged."

Sir Roy's evidence was criticised by the Court of Appeal in the Angela Cannings case last month, which described it as "wholly erroneous". A week after Ms Cannings was freed, the General Medical Council announced that Sir Roy, who is retired, was to be charged with serious professional misconduct at a hearing to be held later this year.

The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, said yesterday that he shared the unease expressed by the Court of Appeal on the dangers of relying solely on expert evidence when the cause of an unexplained death was in dispute.

Ordering the review of all cases potentially involving cot deaths, he said that 258 convictions over the past 10 years had been identified which involved the "murder, man-slaughter or infanticide of an infant aged under two years of age by its parent".

Priority would be given to the 54 cases where the convicted parent was still serving a jail term, he added. A further 15 cases being considered by the Crown Prosecution Service are also being reviewed.

The Criminal Law Review Commission said it expected that the number of cases to be considered for appeal would be significantly lower than the total of 258. "Such cases are likely to involve a number of causes of death and a variable level of expert involvement, and it will be important to identify those where expert witnesses were crucial to securing the conviction."

In their judgment on the Angela Cannings case, the three Court of Appeal judges said there was continuing uncertainty about the causes of cot death. That meant that where there was a serious disagreement between reputable experts in a case involving two or more sudden unexplained infant deaths "the prosecution of a parent or parents for murder should not be started or continued unless there is additional cogent evidence".

The judges added: "We recognise that justice may not be done in a small number of cases where in truth a mother has deliberately killed her baby without leaving any identifiable evidence of the crime. That is an undesirable result but one which, however, avoids a worse one.

"Unless we are sure of guilt, the dreadful possibility always remains that a mother, already brutally scarred by the unexplained deaths of her babies, may find herself in prison for life for killing them when she should not be there at all."

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health welcomed the review of cases but warned that the moratorium on future prosecutions could put children at risk. Harvey Marcovitch, the college's spokesman, said: "That might be good news for anyone unjustly accused. But it might be very bad news for any child in a family where there has been a secretive killing."

Dr Marcovitch said the judges' warning about prosecuting cases where medical experts disagreed would potentially put all clinical negligence cases at risk. "There is nearly always a dispute between reliable and reputable experts. That is why the case is being fought in court. Most medical experts can't agree on what to have for supper."

He added that reputable paediatricians were growing reluctant to testify in child abuse cases because of the controversy they generated. "The problem then is that people who aren't responsible may be willing to take on the task," he warned.

Joyce Epstein, the director of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, said research showed 6 per cent of cot deaths potentially involved maltreatment, and that a better system involving health, social services and police was needed to investigate them. She said: "In our experience the deaths have not been investigated thoroughly. That is the problem."

In the Cannings case the Court of Appeal judges said Mrs Cannings' family tree disclosed incidents of unexplained sudden infant death and "acute life-threatening events", suggesting a possible unidentified genetic cause for the deaths of her children. They added that she cherished her children, and there was no evidence that she suffered from a personality disorder or psychiatric condition. "We are satisfied there is a realistic, albeit as yet undefined, possibility of a genetic problem within this family which may serve to explain these tragic events."

Mrs Cannings, who was in court with her husband, Terry, declined to comment on the judgment. No comment was needed. Her case has rewritten medical history.

THREE WOMEN WHO HAVE BEEN CLEARED

TRUPTI PATEL: was acquitted on 11 June last year of murdering her three babies. All three children died suddenly at the family home in Maidenhead, Berkshire, in separate incidents between 1997 and 2001

SALLY CLARK: jailed in 1999 for murdering her two sons, was freed last January after her second appeal. The decision to quash her convictions hinged on the non-disclosure of evidence by a pathologist, Alan Williams

ANGELA CANNINGS: 40, from Salisbury, Wiltshire, was freed last month after being jailed in April last year for smothering her two young sons, seven-week-old Jason in 1991 and 18-week-old Matthew in 1999

Child health expert criticised for flawed evidence

Professor Sir Roy Meadow, the child health expert who helped to put Angela Cannings behind bars, was criticised by the Court of Appeal yesterday for presenting flawed evidence that left no room for doubt.

That judgment may come to haunt him when he appears before the General Medical Council on a charge of serious professional misconduct later this year.

Sir Roy, a former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has an international reputation for his work in child abuse and is seen by his supporters as thoughtful and sensitive. But his reputation has been undermined by a series of cases in which his judgement has been criticised. The freeing of Angela Cannings, a 40-year-old shop assistant from Salisbury, Wiltshire, by the Court of Appeal last month followed the court's decision a year ago to overturn the conviction of Sally Clarke, a solicitor, for murdering her two sons, and the acquittal last year of Trupti Patel, a pharmacist, who was accused of murdering her three babies.

Sir Roy has been accused of exaggerating the odds of multiple cot deaths, quoting a figure in the Sally Clarke case of one in 73 million, and misleading juries by citing what has been dubbed Meadow's Law - that one cot death is an accident, two is suspicious and three is murder. He claims his remarks have been taken out of context and that they were intended only to raise the possibility that parents could harm their children.

Yesterday, Lord Justice Judge, giving the Court of Appeal judgment in the Cannings case, said that even though he did not give statistical evidence, his flawed evidence in the Clarke trial served to undermine his reputation and authority as a witness. "It also, and not unimportantly for present purposes, demonstrates not only that, in this particular field which we summarise as cot death, even the most distinguished expert can be wrong, but also provides a salutary warning against the possible dangers of an over-dogmatic expert approach," he said.

Cot death research was developing all the time and it was likely that "honest views expressed with reasonable confidence" would have to be revised in future. "Until then, any tendency to dogmatise should be met with an answering challenge," he said.

Colleagues describe Professor Meadow as a man "not beset by self-doubt" but point out that this is what made him sought after as an expert witness. A court of law does not encourage medical witnesses to put forward tentative theories.

Frank Lockyer, father of Sally Clarke, said: "For a long time now we have been saying the criminal court is not the place to find out how a baby has died."

A report at the weekend claimed 5,000 children may have been taken into care in the past 15 years as a result of Sir Roy's work on Munchausen's by Proxy, the condition in which parents fake illness in their children to gain medical attention, and that these would now be reviewed.

A spokesman for Margaret Hodge, the minister for Children, said no decisions had been taken.

ONE WOMAN STILL WAITING FOR REVIEW

Maxine Robinson has been in prison since 1995 after being convicted, on the basis of Sir Roy's expert evidence, of murdering her 18-month-old daughter Christine and her five-month-old son Anthony on the same day. The two children were found dead in their beds on 29 June 1993 - the hottest day of that year.

In 1989, Mrs Robinson's daughter Vicki, had fallen victim to apparent cot death at nine months. An inquest into her death recorded an open verdict and no suspicion was cast either on Mrs Robinson or her then husband Peter. But when Anthony and Christine died four years later, Mrs Robinson fell foul of Sir Roy's "three in one rule" - that one unexplained death in a family is a tragedy, two are suspicious and three means murder.

Forensic tests failed to show a cause of death for the two children, but Mrs Robinson was found guilty of their murders and jailed for life. She lodged an appeal in 1997 but it was dismissed. Her husband divorced her.

Mrs Robinson, now 34, is in Durham Jail, along with killers such as Rosemary West. But doubts have now been raised about the safety of Mrs Robinson's conviction. She has maintained her innocence.

The prosecution claimed she had smothered the two children with pillows after putting them to bed at the family home in Chester-le-Street, Co Durham. She then, it was claimed, watched television with her husband. Later she checked the children and, on returning to her husband, told him, with an alleged lack of emotion: "I think the bairns are dead."

Mrs Robinson's supporters claim the children may all have been poisoned by a toxic chemical found in the fabric of the family's paddling pool. Anthony and Christine had played in the pool on the day before they died, and Vicki had been in the same pool on the day she was found dead.

Maxine Frith

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