Babies died 'after being smothered by mother'

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The Independent Online

A mother murdered two of her babies by deliberately smothering them while they slept, a court heard yesterday.

Angela Cannings, 38, went against nature and instinct by killing her two sons at homes in the Salisbury area of Wiltshire, said Paul Dunkels, for the prosecution. He told Winchester Crown Court that Ms Cannings murdered seven-week-old Jason in June 1991 and four-month-old Matthew in November 1999.

Her first child, Gemma, had died in November 1989 at three months in what was recorded as a natural cot death, and the jury needed to know what happened to Gemma as the background to how they assessed what happened to Matthew and Jason, Mr Dunkels said.

Both children had suffered "an apparently life-threatening event, nine days before they died" and Ms Cannings had "deliberately obstructed the breathing of the babies", he said. "For a mother to attack a child in this way is against nature and instinct, but the prosecution will demonstrate that this is what Angela Cannings has done.''

Ms Cannings, who denies murder, was not interviewed about Gemma's death until late 1999, after her second son died. She told police that she had put Gemma to bed on the morning of 14 November 1989 after taking her into town. She then checked on her when she realised she had been asleep for about two hours, had found she was not moving and had tried to revive her. She then called an ambulance.

A post-mortem examination was carried out and a consultant pathologist at Salisbury Hospital recorded the death as sudden infant death syndrome, or cot death. Ms Cannings, who is still married to the babies' father, Terry, has not been charged with any offence involving Gemma.

Mr Dunkels went on to describe events leading up to the death of Jason, who was born on 25 April 1991. He had dislocated hips at birth and wore a splint, which meant that he had to sleep on his stomach. Medical advice now recommends that babies sleep on their backs to cut the risk of cot deaths, he said.

The Cannings used a special alarm for Jason that sounded if a baby stopped breathing for as little as 10 seconds but on 4 June 1991, a health visitor calling at their home as planned was met by Ms Cannings who opened her front door and said: "It's happened again."

Ms Cannings was upset and was heard retching in the bathroom, according to the health visitor, Gloria Peacock.

Jason was taken to hospital, where doctors found that he had been subjected to sudden distress and that there had been interference with his breathing. He was discharged from hospital but died nine days later, on the day that the child had an appointment for treatment for his hip.

Mr Dunkels said that Mrs Cannings told police that Jason was "not right" after he left hospital but that there had been no problems the night before he died. He was fine when she checked on him at 7.20am, but Jason's alarm went off at 9am. Resuscitation attempts failed, and after a post-mortem examination his death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome.

Mr Dunkels then told the court about the case of Matthew. He said that on 3 November 1999 paramedics were called at 11am after Matthew's baby alarm had gone off, and he was taken to Salisbury Hospital with difficulty breathing. Ms Cannings told hospital staff that she had fed Matthew that morning, had put him to bed at 9am and had found him sick and pale when the alarm went off about 20 minutes later.

Matthew returned to normal, and doctors found him "pink and alert" later that day.

Mr Dunkels said that Ms Cannings's version of events might not be accurate and said that on another day she had left Matthew without adult supervision when she visited a neighbour for a few minutes.

He said: "If the previous events affecting her children were sudden and unexpected and not the work of her own hand, it's surprising, is it not, that she left Matthew in this way out of earshot?"

The case continues.