Angela Cannings: 'Hopefully, we will find a way to become a family again'

Five years ago, she walked out of jail, cleared of killing her babies. But for Angela Cannings and her husband Terry, returning to a normal life is proving agonisingly difficult
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The Independent Online

There are some things in life that you simply never get over. Like the loss of a child. Try to imagine, then, the impact on a mother of losing not one but three children, all of them in infancy, all from cot death. Instead of having time to grieve with your husband, you find yourself jailed for killing them when there is not a shred of evidence against you.

Even today, Angela Cannings struggles to describe the experience - and she has lived it. "I was in denial when the police told me they wanted to investigate the third death. I was in denial when I was charged with murder. I was certainly in denial at the trial, and remained so even when I got to prison. I had to live that horrendous time but all through it I still could not get it into my head that it was happening to me. I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. I still have to pinch myself to realise that the woman they're talking about is me."

Her tone is calm and everyday. She is dressed in a simple peasant blouse and jeans, the favoured uniform of many modern stay-at-home mums. Her dark hair is cut neatly around her still face. There is something very normal and down-to-earth about Angela Cannings. It makes her description of the extraordinary things that have happened to her over the last seven years at the hands of the British justice system even more disturbing and shaming.

Cannings and her husband, Terry, had already lost two babies, Gemma at 13 weeks and Jason at seven weeks, to cot death when, on 12 November 1999, their 18-week-old son, Matthew, simply stopped breathing while having his morning sleep. As a result, Cannings, then a 36-year-old Salisbury housewife, was arrested and tried for his murder and that of his siblings. Although there was no evidence of wrongdoing, the court accepted as fact "Meadow's Law" - named after the distinguished paediatrician, Sir Roy Meadow - that one sudden infant death was a tragedy, two was suspicious but three was murder until proven otherwise.

It took two years in Angela Cannings' case for this violation of the most basic principle of English law - innocent until proved guilty - to be overturned by the Court of Appeal, two years in which her hitherto strong marriage to Terry was all but destroyed. "It's a crappy relationship now. We're very distant," says Terry candidly. A big bear of a man, with grey hair and the outline of what once must have been a handsome face still visible, he is squeezed into an armchair in the opposite corner of the room from his wife, as if to emphasise their apartness. "But," he says, in the manner of one salvaging something from the wreckage, "at least we are still able to be in the same house."

The fact doesn't seem to give either of them any visible comfort. What interaction they have while I'm with them in the living room of their semi on a small estate outside Plymouth is restricted to exchanging domestic details - who's on the phone, who's making the tea, who's going to walk their two dogs, what's happening with their surviving daughter, Jade, now 10. She was put under the care of social services when her mother was arrested and allowed to live with Terry, but only if Angela moved out of the family home while she awaited trial.

The Cannings moved here after Angela's release, using as a deposit the fee paid by the Daily Mail for an exclusive interview on the day she left prison. The house is on the other side of the Tamar Bridge from Plymouth, just over the Cornish border. They'd had happy holidays down here in the past and hoped they might recapture some of the magic. Both felt they had to get away from Salisbury and the bitter memories it held. There had also been some ill-feeling between Terry and some of Angela's family. Both husband and wife needed help through their ordeal but Terry felt his struggle was less recognised and less supported by those around them.

What attracted Angela to the house, she explains as we stand in the sun on the balcony at the back, is the view of a wooded hill with a small castle perched on top. "After being locked up for so long," she says, "I needed that sense of space to convince me that I was free." As ever, she says it in a matter-of-fact (omega) tone of voice, her Wiltshire accent still noticeable.

But no place was ever going to magic away what happened to them. Once a compensation payment had finally been conceded by the Home Office - though only, it should be said, after initial reluctance and still the details haven't been finalised - the spotlight on their case has faded. The politicians who once couldn't do enough to be seen to be helping Angela have moved on. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, even once sent a letter on official notepaper to Jade, to promise that her mummy would never be going back to prison, after he heard the little girl had been unable to settle following Angela's return. It sits in a frame above her bed to this day.

The assumption seems to be that the mistake made by the courts has been acknowledged, the victim freed and compensated, and that everyone can now live happily ever after. If only. As Angela recounts with unflinching honesty in her new autobiography, Against All Odds, nothing in her surviving family's garden is particularly rosy.

The deep-rooted anger that still paralyses Terry is the more obvious - mainly because he's so brutally honest in telling you about it, the basic note of incomprehension rarely leaving his voice. "I suffered because of what all this did to me as a man. On 12 November, 1999, I was five stone thinner than this. I was a guy who worked 60 hours a week. I'd never been in trouble with the police. I ran the top money-taking Tesco bakery in Great Britain and I was a dad and a husband. But from the moment Ange was arrested, they stripped that all away from me."

By "they" Terry means the authorities - the police, social services, the courts, ultimately the politicians, all the people he used to trust implicitly. What he sees as their betrayal almost destroyed him. "Suddenly I had to deal with the fact that, although I knew Angela hadn't done anything, I could see the way things were stacking up. She was going to prison. I worked out in my mind I was going to be in my sixties and Jade 19 before she got out. Subconsciously I was letting go of her. I hated myself for it but it was the only way I could do it. Suddenly I was spending 90 per cent of my time on my own with Jade. From having 25 staff and thousands of customers, I was suddenly alone. And to cope with the loneliness, I started to drink, began smoking again and ended up on the verge of a breakdown."

Angela listens unflinching as he talks. When she tries in her turn to describe the effect on her she is more controlled, more measured, looking forward with modest hopes. "I feel I'm back home and we've come down here to live and it is beautiful here and I just want to embrace life. But Terry can't. I respect him for that but he's been so affected by this. Hopefully we will be able to find some way to become a family again."

There is a determination in Angela Cannings that makes you believe that they all might just get there but not sometime soon. It's tempting to see this streak in her as the result of what she's been through, and she would be the first to agree she's battle-hardened. But she has always known her own mind. She met Terry when she was 21 and he was 30. Her Irish Catholic father was beside himself and her mother weeping when Angela moved in with this older man, a divorcee with two small children, but she knew what she wanted and wouldn't back down. Eventually they came round. "I'm a fighter. It's somewhere in my genes. Maybe it's because I'm half Irish and a bit stubborn. And I'm still fighting. I'm worn out, shattered but I have to keep going. I believe in myself, in us. There's no choice."

The couple married in 1987 and had, by their own account, a good life and a happy marriage - holidays, a good social life, their own home, job satisfaction. "Friends have told us since that they used to envy our relationship and how good we were together," recalls Terry. "I thought I'd won the Lottery. Here I was with this woman 10 years younger than me who made me laugh. Physically we were great. Everything was so good."

Two years later Gemma was born, a treasured first daughter after Terry's two sons. One morning Angela put her down for her sleep. "About two hours later I went in to have a look at her," she remembers. "I don't know why I went in. Maybe I had a feeling. Gemma was lying on her back completely still. I reached out to touch her because I thought she was asleep and with that one movement knew something was terribly wrong."

In a panic, she called the ambulance but at the hospital the doctors told Angela and Terry that Gemma had died. They were not to blame themselves, they were reassured. It was cot death - or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Together they buried their daughter, together they grieved and slowly together they helped each other pick up the pieces of their life.

The doctors said there was no reason to think it would happen again and so in 1991 Jason was born. They placed a special baby alarm that detects changes in breathing in his cot and initially all seemed well. Then one morning Angela heard the metallic buzz of the alarm and rushed in to find him lifeless. What is every parent's nightmare had struck again, but by chance her health visitor arrived at the same moment and together the two women managed to resuscitate him. Later the hospital couldn't find any reason why it had happened and so sent Jason home. "I told myself not to be paranoid but, however hard I tried to stifle the fears, they kept returning."

A couple of weeks later, it happened again. This time, despite being rushed to hospital in an air ambulance, Jason had died. "All I could feel," Angela recalls, "was an overwhelming (omega) sense of failure because yet again I had not protected my child from harm."

The two children were buried together and for five years the Cannings took their time to mourn before consulting doctors as to whether it was safe to try to have more children. With medical approval and support, they decided to go ahead and in 1996 Jade was born. At three months she had breathing difficulties, but she got over them and thrived. "A new child can never replace another," Angela writes in her autobiography, "and I knew my grief would always be a part of me. But I truly believed we had moved on at last." So much so that in 1999 Matthew was born. At 18 weeks, he appeared to have passed the danger time. And then tragedy struck again.

This time instead of receiving support and sympathy, Angela was called in for questioning by the police. Terry immediately spotted their change of tone, but Angela - in shock and raised to trust authority - went along with it until she too noticed the drift of their questioning. How come, they asked, she was always alone when her children died? Because she was a stay-at-home mum, and her husband worked long hours, she told them. Why hadn't the special baby alarm alerted her sooner? She didn't know. She'd rushed to the bedroom as soon as she had heard it. And why, they asked, wasn't she more upset? Shouldn't she be weeping and wailing? She raised their suspicions because of the set of her face, something over which she had impaired control after a brush a few years earlier with Bell's Palsy, which freezes facial muscles.

A policewoman had accompanied Angela to the hospital mortuary for her last goodbye to Matthew. As she stood next to his coffin, the policewoman was there in the room taking notes about her reactions. She didn't fit the stereotype the police had in mind for a woman who had just lost her third child, though heaven only knows where they got one from, given how rare such cases are.

It was the circumstantial details that seemed to form the bulk of the case against her. "In court, they kept asking me about the tiny details of how I reacted when I found first Jason and then Matthew in their cot not breathing. And I couldn't remember. I was in a panic. My child had just died. It was as if there was a right way to react when your child died and a wrong way, and I had done it wrong."

And then there was Professor Sir Roy Meadow and his pet theory about cot deaths which played its part in the jailing not only of Angela Cannings but also of Manchester solicitor, Sally Clark, and almost did for Trupti Patel, all women who instead of being allowed to mourn cot deaths were subjected to the full rigours of the judicial system thanks to the professor's ideas.

Despite never having met Angela Cannings, Meadow was among the prosecution's strongest weapons at her trial. Infamously in Clark's earlier case he had told the jury that the chances of suffering multiple cot deaths in one family were one in 73 million - a statistic now discredited.

How does Angela feel about him today? For once her composure is shaken. "He's offered no apology, no admission that he may have been wrong. That's what makes me angry. These high-profile people, when they get it wrong, never want to admit it. I'm not on a witch-hunt. I have the greatest respect for many paediatricians. But people like Meadow should come down a peg or two. The consequences to families of what they say is all above their heads. We were just case notes to him - and in my case he told the court that he'd shredded some of his notes. How professional is that?"

Meadow was subsequently struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council as a result of his conduct, though that decision has now been reversed by the courts and is pending another appeal. That he may ultimately suffer no sanction is what really gets Terry going. "If I'd made a mistake at work, I'd have been sacked. These medical people, they make mistakes, ruin people's lives and get away with it."

It was only while she was in prison - spending a spell in Durham on the same wing as Rose West - that Angela suffered any verbal or physical abuse. On one occasion boiling hot coffee was thrown over her. She still bears the scars - physical and mental. "Some of our neighbours here know and they're very good about it. I think it's me. Despite being cleared, I will carry with me to my grave the label of a child killer and that plays heavily on me. Until someone can give me a reason why my babies died, I will live with the uncertainty of not knowing why they died. I just hope they can come up with something - for me personally and also for the many who have gone through something similar."

The couple are still struggling to grieve for Matthew. There was no family funeral as there had been for Gemma and Jason. The police urged a cremation with only a handful of guests to avoid attracting publicity. Terry subsequently had their second son's ashes buried with his brother and sister and his name added to their grave stone, but Angela couldn't be there. She was still in prison.

It's another injustice he finds hard to get past. "They took that away from us, just as they took away from Angela seeing Jade growing up, riding a bike, learning to swim, all those things. And in life, once it's taken, you never get it back."

Angela, characteristically, is more optimistic. "I still hope that perhaps one day we can all go back and go to church where the children are buried and have another service and all be together as a family." They are small steps but she feels she has to go forward, if only for Jade's sake. Since her mother's release, she has been troubled, reluctant to go to school and often withdrawn from Angela. Today, they have finally managed to get her to school, but a couple of hours late.

The autobiography, Angela hopes, will be her final appearance on the national stage. "I don't know about Terry," she says, "but for me the book was something we wanted to do during the first two years when I was arrested and coming up to trial. We couldn't believe the way we were being treated. Now we've done it, that's it for me. Once it is out, people will get the whole story and then hopefully we can start to - not move on - but settle down."

Does she still care about people's good opinion? "It's not so much that I care. It bothers me that people still feel negatively about me. I've done nothing wrong. It went all out of my control. It was taken above me and this book is telling them what happened."

Terry has a different take. "I was 45 when Matthew died and thought I knew a fair bit, but the reason this book has gone through is to say this could happen to anyone. Unfortunately it is still happening in the family courts to people. I have been more involved than Ange with the families who have had their children adopted because of these courts, and many of their faces are etched on my brain. Until I felt confident that it had stopped, I would find it very hard to let it go and not speak about it in public."

Does Terry share Angela's hope that they have a future together? "Because it was so good, I do hope in time something will come back. What I say to people is try going six months when you're not in contact with each other physically or only at monthly visits, try having a child under the control of social services for four years, and try putting all that together and then ask, would you still be together? We are. That's what I cling to."

'Against All Odds: A Mother's Fight to Prove Her Innocence' is published on 18 May by Time Warner at £16.99