Mary Dejevsky: Sir Roy Meadow should not take all the blame

He was the expert witness of choice, but he was only a witness. It was for others to weigh the evidence

Now 72, Professor Sir Roy Meadow has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion - and sentenced to professional death. It is doubtful that he will ever practise again, whatever the General Medical Council's ruling. The chances that he will ever be called to testify as an expert witness in future must be a large, round zero.

The narrow finding of a GMC panel yesterday was that this international authority on cot death had given "erroneous" and "misleading" evidence in the trial of Sally Clark. Mrs Clark was convicted of murdering her two baby sons, and served four years in prison before her successful appeal. Sir Roy's testimony - that the chance of two babies dying of cot death within an affluent family, such as Ms Clark's, were "one in 73 million" - was the crucial piece of evidence, that secured her conviction.

As a result of Ms Clark's appeal, and the questions hanging over other cases where he was called as an expert witness, Sir Roy has not just been discredited. He has become a hate figure of epic proportions, especially among women. Nor are the passions directed against him hard to comprehend.

Ms Clark and the other women not only lost their babies. If they had other children, they were deprived of bringing them up. And they suffered vilification that was, if anything, even more destructive than what Sir Roy Meadow is suffering now. No other crime that is attended by quite so much mythology and attracts quite so much moral outrage as a mother's killing of her own infant. From Medea onwards, women who kill their children have been regarded - most ferociously, I would hazard, by men - as perversion personified and nature betrayed. Even where modern medical practice identifies post-natal depression as the cause, an aura of suspicion is rarely dispelled.

To be falsely branded a mother-murderess is a fate more bitter than being wrongly accused of almost any other crime. It is entirely reasonable that Ms Clark and others should want to find someone responsible. It is reasonable, too, for them to blame the person whose dubious testimony secured their wrongful conviction.

Yet I cannot help feeling some sympathy for this beleaguered paediatrician. And were I his wife or a member of his family, I would feel not just sorrow, but fierce anger on his behalf. Sir Roy's evidence may have contributed to a miscarriage of justice, but there is a whole system - a philosophical, scientific and judicial establishment - that bears just as much responsibility as he does.

No one, not even Sir Roy's sharpest detractors has suggested that he deliberately set out to mislead the court in the case of Mrs Clark. No, his "crime", such as it was, went back much further. It was to have become an authority in his field and then to have developed a theory that was elevated into orthodoxy by his peers. This theory, Muenchausen syndrome by proxy, offered an explanation for the inexplicable: why does a mother kill or harm her own child?

Perhaps, when Sir Roy assessed the chances of Ms Clark's innocence, he miscalculated or was simply careless. And it is right he should be called to account. But the greater responsibility rests with a system that places one scientist and one hypothesis on a pinnacle, then with equal zeal tears down the whole edifice down.

In the end, Sir Roy is as much victim as villain. So long as he and his theory were lionised, he was the expert witness of choice. But he was only a witness. There were others in those courtrooms - lawyers, judges and juries - whose job was to weigh the evidence, ask right questions and exercise their discretion.

That so much weight was placed on Sir Roy's evidence says much about the awe in which the ordinary people who sit on juries regard scientists. (I know; I was a juror in a case where - inconclusive - expert evidence was brought.) When that scientist is a professor and a Sir, that authority is augmented many times. In this event, the defence needs to find contesting scientific evidence. Yet scientists with less fashionable theories, or no theories at all, do not win the honours and are not asked to testify.

The broader point - equally applicable to the reconsideration of "shaken baby syndrome' - is that when science or medicine and the courts come together, they also bring together two of this country's most traditional, exclusive and self-perpetuating closed shops. Those who reach the apex of these professions are still predominantly clubbable men who help one another advance. A Crown Court is generally no place to challenge an established consensus.

Yet the trial of a mother for infanticide, with all the burden of prejudice and myth that this carries, cries out for more female involvement and a wider range of scientific opinion. As the number of women doctors and lawyers increases, the male domination of the upper echelons of these professions should decline. Until then, however, the rise and fall of Professor Meadow should serve to illustrate why too much respect for conventional wisdom is dangerous and why medicine and the judiciary still need wider participation at the top.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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