Family torn apart by triple tragedy, and then an unjust conviction

Mother convicted of killing her two baby sons is cleared, ending her 20-month agony in a prison of hate
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The Independent Online

As the words "these convictions are unsafe" were uttered, Angela Cannings staggered back behind the dock and gasped, her hand flying to her mouth in shock.

It was the first sign of emotion Mrs Cannings had displayed in five days at the Court of Appeal, and betrayed the agony she has endured in the 20 months since she was convicted of smothering her two baby sons.

At Bullwood Hall prison, in Essex, she has had boiling water thrown over her, and been subjected to whispers of "baby killer" whenever she walked out of her cell. Her husband Terry has had to look after their one surviving child, a seven-year-old daughter, alone. The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has had to cope with a 15-hour round trip once a month to visit her mother in prison. Care orders, the trial and the prison sentence mean that mother and daughter have not lived together for four years.

This is a woman torn apart not just by the tragedy of cot death, but bybeing accused of killing her own children. "This has made her much harder, much more cynical," said Jacqui Cameron, a member of her legal team. "She was a very innocent person before her arrest; now she is much more cynical of authority figures. But she never gave up hope. If she hadn't had hope she wouldn't have got through this."

Mrs Cannings' ordeal began when she found her 18-week-old son Matthew dead in his cot in 1999. Her first child, Gemma, had died in similar circumstances in 1989 at 17 weeks and her second, a son called Jason, was found dead in his cot in 1991 when he was seven weeks old. Post mortems on Gemma and Jason had concluded they had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), better known as cot death.

But as Mr Cannings stood in the hospital after Matthew's death, a doctor told him: "Terry, expect crap in your life now." That evening, the police arrived at the couple's home and took their daughter, then three, into care.

Mrs Cannings was charged with the murders of Gemma, Jason and Matthew the next day. Although the charge of murdering Gemma was dropped before the trial due to lack of evidence, the jury were given details of her death and told to regard it as "background". And this was the crux of the case against Mrs Cannings. She had fallen victim to the discredited theory of Professor Sir Roy Meadow, a former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics, who was once regarded as a world expert on cot death.

The theory, known as Meadow's Law, states that one cot death in a family is a tragedy, two are suspicious and three means murder. In 1999, Professor Meadow's theories helped to convict Sally Clark of murdering her two baby sons. His evidence also helped to secure the convictions of seven other women accused of killing their children.

Professor Meadow was the star prosecution witness at Mrs Cannings' trial last April, where he said that three natural deaths in one family were too unlikely. It had to be murder. But not one of the Cannings' babies showed any signs of smothering, such as haemorrhaging behind the eyes or bruising around the mouth. Terry Cannings and a host of family and friends gave evidence that Angela was a natural and loving mother who had been devastated by the deaths of her children. Health visitors said they had had no concerns about her. Psychiatrists said she was not suffering from any mental disorder.

But according to Professor Meadow, the lack of evidence meant nothing, while the fact that Mrs Cannings had been alone when all three babies died was suspicious. "Sudden, unexpected death does not run in families," he said. After two days of deliberation, the jury found Mrs Cannings guilty of both murders. Within months, however, doubts began to emerge about Mrs Cannings' guilt - and about the truth of Meadow's Law. Dr David Drucker, a genetics expert at Manchester University called Meadow's Law into question, dubbing it "scientifically illiterate". Then, in January, Sally Clark was freed by the Court of Appeal after the judges ruled that Professor Meadow's statistical evidence in the case was "wholly misleading". And in June, Trupti Patel was cleared of murdering her two sons after Professor Meadow's theories were subjected to criticism by other experts.

Mrs Cannings' appeal was fast-tracked as it became clear that her conviction was based on the evidence of Professor Meadow. Another cot death expert, Professor Robert Carpenter, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reviewed the latest information on SIDS, and assessed Professor Meadow's evidence.

Professor Carpenter's evidence on Tuesday proved to be the final nail in the coffin of the case against Mrs Cannings. He condemned Professor Meadow's interpretation of the statistics on three natural deaths in one family as a "travesty" of the available evidence. "The occurrence of a third sudden unexplained death is rare but not unknown, and more often than not all three deaths are due to natural causes," he told the court.

He produced new statistics about the likelihood of a mother being able to smother three children without any of them showing any telltale signs such as haemorrhaging or bruising. The chances of this, Professor Carpenter said, were five per cent or less. The fact that Mr and Mrs Cannings smoked meant that the babies were at a higher risk of cot death.

Professor Carpenter also cited unpublished research which showed that babies who suffered acute life-threatening events - where they suddenly stop breathing for no reason but are resuscitated - are 10 times more likely to go on to suffer cot death. Jason, Matthew and the surviving child all suffered such events within weeks of being born.

Every morning for the last week, Mrs Cannings has packed her belongings and brought them to court in case she was released. Yesterday, she was finally able to take them home.

SUCCESSFUL APPEAL IS FAR FROM THE END OF THE MATTER

As Angela Cannings savours her first day of freedom, two other mothers convicted in similar cases are still coming to terms with their ordeals.

Trupti Patel was cleared of murdering three of her babies in June this year after the Court of Appeal was told Professor Sir Roy Meadow's theories about cot death were the subject of considerable doubt.

Ms Patel, 35, has to live with the legacy of suspicion created by the murder accusations. Like Mrs Cannings, she has a surviving daughter. But in the aftermath of the case, restrictions were left in place on how she lives with her child. "I'm not allowed to cook for my daughter, serve her food, or give her a drink. Perhaps they think I might poison her," she said in a recent interview.

Sally Clark, a solicitor, had her convictions for murdering her two baby sons overturned by the Court of Appeal in January this year after the judges decided that Professor Meadow's evidence in the case was "wholly misleading".

Mrs Clark spent four years in jail. After her conviction was quashed, she said: "Today is not a victory. We are not victorious. There are no winners here."

Maxine Frith