Cot death review after mother cleared

Jury's landmark verdict in case of woman accused of killing her three babies

A mother was cleared of murdering three of her babies yesterday in a landmark case that could change the way the legal and medical authorities deal with cases of suspected parental infanticide.

Trupti Patel, 35, sobbed and embraced her husband, Jayant, after she was found not guilty at Reading Crown Court.

All three children collapsed suddenly at home in Maidenhead, Berkshire, in separate incidents between 1997 and 2001.

The jury of 10 men and one woman took 90 minutes to return the not-guilty verdicts after a trial that lasted more than six weeks. The speed and manner of the verdict will be seen to vindicate the Patels and indict the prosecution.

There was a loud roar of "Yes" and emotional scenes among Mrs Patel's family and supporters as the foreman of the jury read out the verdicts. Many sobbed and hugged each other while the court emptied.

Speaking on the steps of the court, an emotional and clearly relieved Mrs Patel said she was "absolutely delighted" by the verdicts. "Words cannot describe how we have been feeling," she said. "It should never have come to court."

Mrs Patel was originally charged with attempting to murder her fourth, surviving child, but that charge was dropped before the case began.

The acquittal will lead to tough questions for Thames Valley Police and the Crown Prosecution Service, about the decision to bring the case.

Coming six months after the acquittal on appeal of solicitor Sally Clark, who was jailed for the murder of her two young sons in 1999, ther case also marks changing attitudes to sudden infant death syndrome, or cot death ­ from a presumption that the parents were guilty to an understanding that natural causes lie behind most such deaths.

The murder convictions of at least six other mothers are expected to be reviewed after yesterday's acquittal. At least two of the cases expected to be reviewed by the courts relied on the evidence of Sir Roy Meadow, the consultant paediatrician who was also a prosecution witness in the Trupti Patel case.

Last year, 366 babies suffered a "cot death" ­ where the cause cannot be found. The figure has fallen in the past decade since advice was given to put babies to sleep on their backs. In the 1980s, about 1,500 babies died in cot deaths each year.

According to the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, one family a year suffers a second cot death. A third in the same family is exceptional but not unheard of. "There have been cases but there is no research to say what the frequency is," a spokeswoman said. The case against Mrs Patel was based on circumstantial evidence and the disputed testimony of medical experts who were asked to review the deaths. The case took 11 months to prepare, after which Mrs Patel was charged with three counts of murder.

The problem for the prosecution was that it was ultimately unable to prove to the jury, beyond reasonable doubt, that the deaths of Trupti Patel's children were anything other than the sudden and unexplained tragedies that the defence insisted they were.

One suggestion during the case was the children suffered from Long Q-T syndrome, an inherited disorder of the heart rhythm that can cause unforeseen death. It was also suggested they could have even have suffered from a rare metabolic disorder affecting children that could go unrecognised and cause death without warning.

Harvey Marcovitch, consultant paediatrician and editor of Archives of Disease in Childhood, said: "If you think what is involved in a criminal case and if you haven't investigated these children properly how could you be sure they had not died from one of these inherited disorders?" He added that he did not think this sort of case would come to court again.

A central part of the prosecution case was the broken ribs suffered by Mia ­ the third of Mrs Patel's babies to die ­ purported to be evidence that the mother must have squeezed the infant's chest to stop her breathing. But that proposition collapsed when several medical experts called by the defence ­ and even one main prosecution witness ­ said they were more likely to be caused by the attempts to resuscitate Mia. Another plank of the prosecution case was that all three babies had died without a natural cause being found, despite extensive medical testing ­ in the case of Mia, before and after her death.

Professor Meadow also gave evidence in the trials of Sally Clark and Angela Cannings on the likelihood of their babies being victims of cot deaths.

Mrs Clark, a solicitor, was convicted of killing two of her babies but the conviction was later quashed. Professor Meadow told the Sally Clark trial the odds of there being two unexplained infant deaths in one family were one in 73 million ­ a claim later disputed by the Royal Statistical Society.

But the most important moment in the case came when Mrs Patel's maternal grandmother told the trial that she had lost five of her 12 children while they were in their infancy. The court was told that the inherited heart disorder Long Q-T syndrome could miss a generation before striking again. An estimated one in 10,000 of the population has some form of the condition.

The main weakness of the prosecution was its failure to establish a motive or to portray Mrs Patel as a negligent mother. Since the investigation Mrs Patel has only been allowed limited, supervised access to her eight-year-old daughter ­ she and her husband have been forced to live apart during the police investigation and trial.

As they made first moves to begin rebuilding their lives together. Mrs Patel said she was "looking forward to getting back to some sort of normality".