Couple jailed for killing boy with salt 'unfairly convicted'

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A couple who were jailed for five years for the salt poisoning of a three-year-old boy were unfairly convicted because the jury in the case did not consider the possibility that he died from natural causes, the Court of Appeal has been told.

In the absence of eyewitness evidence of the killing, only conflicting testimony from expert witnesses was put before the jury at the trial last year of Ian and Angela Gay for the murder of Christian Blewitt, whom they had planned to adopt, Michael Mansfield QC, for the couple, said.

Mr Mansfield told the appeal judges that new expert evidence suggested that Christian was suffering from a rare condition which allowed sodium levels to build up in his body to the point of overload. The condition could explain why Christian - alleged to have been force-fed up to six teaspoons of salt, equivalent to a litre of sea water - was retaining sodium in his system instead of excreting it through his kidneys, which were functioning normally.

Mr Gay, 39, an electrical engineer and his wife, 40, a £200,000-a-year actuary, from Halesowen in the West Midlands, were convicted of manslaughter at Worcester Crown Court in January last year. At their trial, the prosecution portrayed them as an ambitious and wealthy couple who deliberately killed Christian, who had been born to a mother with drug problems and suffered severe health problems, because he did not fit their stereotype of an ideal child.

The child's two siblings, whom they were also planning to adopt, were taken from them after Christian's death in December 2002. He was found unconscious in his room at the large house in Bromsgrove that the couple had bought in which to raise the children. The couple were in the Court of Appeal yesterday for the start of the hearing, which is expected to last three days.

Mr Mansfield told Lord Justice Richards, Mr Justice Penry-Davey and Judge Ann Goddard that the situation was similar to that of Angela Cannings, who was cleared of murdering two of her children after the Court of Appeal ruled it was unsafe to prosecute when the only evidence was from experts on each side.

The jury, which was asked to decide not just "whodunnit but also whatdunnit" in the absence of any eyewitnesses to what happened, was presented with 12 complex issues as to cause of death, said Mr Mansfield.

He said a newly commissioned report from Dr Glyn Walters showed that the issue of what was termed "resetting of the osmostats" involved in sodium levels, was a field of learning in which the experts were still at the frontiers of knowledge. Dr Walters had concluded that "there is nothing in this case that can be explained by salt poisoning that cannot be equally well explained by re-setting of the osmostats".

Mr Mansfield said that, had Dr Walters' evidence been available at the trial, the verdict would have depended solely on a serious disagreement between reputable experts, there being virtually no other evidence.

During the trial, experts had been unable to agree even on how much sodium was in the child's body, with estimates ranging from one to six teaspoons; a packet of crisps, which he had eaten on the morning he went into a coma, contains almost two-thirds of a teaspoon.

William Davis QC, for the Crown, argued that Dr Walters, although an eminent consultant, was another expert putting forward his hypothesis on exactly the same topic as that raised at the trial.

Mr Davis pointed out that Christian was "suddenly begging for a drink and absolutely desperate for water" just before his admission to hospital, despite no history of abnormal thirst. This was consistent with salt poisoning and wholly at odds with the new hypothesis.

Questions about the conviction were raised almost immediately after the trial last year when Dr Peter Acland, a prominent Home Office pathologist who gave evidence for their defence, said he had "significant doubts" about the verdict.

The couple were first charged with murder, but the charge was amended to manslaughter when it emerged he had suffered head injuries during his hospital treatment.

An unravelling tragedy

* October 2002: Angela and Ian Gay adopt Christian Blewitt, aged three, along with his sister, 10 months and brother, two.

* December 2002: Christian dies in hospital, four days after being found unconscious in his bedroom at the family home in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Couple are arrested and charged with murder. The other children are taken away from the parents and are not allowed to attend the funeral.

* January 2005: The Gays are convicted of manslaughter after a seven-week trial at Worcester Crown Court and sentenced to five years in prison.

* February 2005: Dr Peter Acland, Home Office pathologist, says there are "significant" doubts about the safety of the conviction. The Gays hire a new legal team with experience of the Sally Clark and Angela Cannings cases, both of whom had convictions for killing their children quashed.

* March 2006: Court of Appeal begins hearing.