Appeal court clears mother of killing children

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A mother who spent six years in prison after being given life for murdering her two babies was freed by the Court of Appeal yesterday because her convictions were ruled unsafe.

A mother who spent six years in prison after being given life for murdering her two babies was freed by the Court of Appeal yesterday because her convictions were ruled unsafe.

Donna Anthony, 31, who has always claimed her children died from cot death, stood in the dock and wiped away tears from her eyes as a judge ordered her release from the court cells.

The quashing of her convictions raises further concern about the over-reliance on medical evidence in baby murder trials.

Lord Justice Judge said statistical evidence given by the two most important experts called by the Crown was "significantly undermined". One of the experts was a paediatrician, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, whose work in this field has been discredited.

Yesterday, Lord Justice Judge said that in all the circumstances, "we are persuaded that the convictions are unsafe and should be quashed."

Donna Anthony's lawyers had told the court the death of her children had been hard enough for Donna Anthony to bear but her later imprisonment for their murders was an absolute "tragedy".

Ms Anthony, from Yeovil, Somerset, was jailed for life at Bristol Crown Court for allegedly smothering her 11-month-old daughter, Jordan, and four-month-old son, Michael.

Although Ms Anthony denied smothering her babies, her original appeal in June 2000 was dismissed.

But, after a number of other miscarriages of justice involving wrongly convicted mothers, most notably Sally Clarke and Angela Cannings, her case was included as part of a review ordered by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith.

Jordan died in Yeovil District Hospital in 1996, with doctors believing she had been the victim of cot death.

The death of Michael, in March 1997, prompted a police investigation into both deaths after medical checks were inconclusive. In both instances Ms Anthony tried to revive the babies but they died in hospital. Yesterday, her counsel, Ray Tully, told Lord Justice Judge, Mrs Justice Hallett and Mr Justice Leveson, that the prosecution was flawed because it had proceeded on the basis that "lightning does not strike twice".

That approach, he said, was inherent in the evidence of all four experts called by the Crown, including Professor Sir Roy Meadow. Paul Dunkels QC, for the prosecution, told the court that the Court of Appeal judgment quashing the convictions of Angela Cannings and new medical data published in The Lancet in January this year meant the Crown would not ask for a retrial.

He added: "It is accepted Professor Sir Roy Meadow was an important prosecution witness in this trial and although not the only prosecution expert, his evidence formed one of the main planks of expertise put before the jury."

Mr Dunkels said: "It is accepted that the way in which the case was put must have meant that the evidence of Professor Sir Roy Meadow had a significant impact upon the jury and it is accepted on behalf of the Crown that his evidence cannot now stand unchallenged as in 1998."

Lord Justice Judge said yesterday the logical conclusion was that if the case was to have proceeded today, rather than in 1998, the medical evidence called on behalf of the Crown, looked at overall, would have seemed "less compelling" than it seemed at trial - while there would have been more persuasive expert medical evidence available to the defence.

After the judgment, Ms Anthony stood on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice in London and her lawyer read from a statement: "Donna is of course, very, very relieved that after seven years of prison, nearly, she is a free woman. But this is a very difficult day because she is now finally going to have to come to terms, to grieve properly, for the two babies."

Other acquittals

TRUPTI PATEL:

Accused of killing three babies. Sir Roy Meadow told court of "Meadow's law" which holds "one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, unless proven otherwise". Mrs Patel was acquitted after the court heard the cause may be genetic.

ANGELA CANNINGS:

Freed in December 2003 after it was heard her grandmother and great-grandmother lost babies to cot death. Mrs Cannings was jailed for the murder of seven-week-old Jason in 1991 and 18-week-old Matthew in 1999. She also lost her first child.

SALLY CLARK:

Jailed for murdering her sons Harry, eight weeks, and Christopher, 11 weeks. Sir Roy said the chance of both having sudden infant death syndrome was one in 73 million. Mrs Clark was freed in 2003; the court heard there was no statistical basis for the figure.