Devoted mother's fight to clear her name

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The Independent Online
"YOU don't know what you have done to me. You really don't," she wailed. The anguished cry of Julie Watts in the Court of Appeal yesterday signalled her recognition that a nightmarish experience at the hands of the law was finally over.

A woman who by every account was a "devoted mother", had been charged with the murder of her hugely handicapped 14-month-old daughter, Abigail, who died when her breathing tube became disconnected while her mother was at her bedside.

At her trial last September, the judge had said that Mrs Watts had carried a burden of "awesome proportions". Yet she was found guilty not of murder, but manslaughter, and given an 18-month sentence, suspended for two years.

Yesterday, after eight months of having her awesome burden replaced by the shame of a conviction for killing her own child, three Court of Appeal judges finally cleared her name.

Outside the court and comforted by her husband, Andrew, who had been with her throughout the hearing, she said: "This whole thing should never have happened. No one could ever imagine what we have been through and how much our lives have been destroyed."

Mrs Watts, 32, whose dedication was such that she often argued with doctors over her daughter's treatment, was due to take her home on 27 July 1995.

Her trial had heard that after taking luggage to the family car she returned shouting: "It's Abby, help, help."

The child's breathing monitor, which was designed to sound an alarm if she was in difficulty, was switched off and the tracheotomy tube, which should have been secured by three double knots, was lying in her cot.

"What was in your mind was something uniquely you know," the trial judge, Mr Justice Sachs, told Mrs Watts. "What you did was seriously wrong and lest anyone thinks that the manner I am dealing with you indicates any approval of euthanasia or anything of that kind, they are in error."

But at yesterday's appeal, counsel for Mrs Watts, Richard Henriques QC, said there was a "real possibility" that the tube had been removed by an unknown third party.

He told the court: "Abigail's appearance was such that a stranger may have felt intense feelings directed towards the apparent helplessness of her plight.

"This was a child who could not see, nor hear, nor swallow, nor smile, aged 14 months. Somebody within that hospital may, it is submitted, quite possibly have taken an ill- conceived decision that it was a kindness to let her die by removing the tracheotomy tube and the two securing tapes."

Giving judgment, Lord Justice Swinton Thomas said it had been "an unusually difficult" appeal to resolve. He spoke of "absolutely overwhelming" evidence that Mrs Watts was "a completely devoted mother to Abigail". There was no direct evidence to connect her with the removal of the tracheotomy tube and the prosecution case at trial was circumstantial.

The appeal judges ruled that there could be no criticism of the trial judge relating to the aspect of the case dealing with those possibilities. But the court allowed the appeal on the ground that the trial judge did not give the direction he should have done on the issue of manslaughter.