When a solicitor finds himself or herself in trouble with the law most of us do not gloat. We know the pressures of our kind of work. We worry about someone whose life has been ruined, who was once one of us.
The feelings generated among the legal profession about the conviction of Sally Clark, a Manchester solicitor, for the murder of her two little boys Christopher and Harry, has raised questions across the whole profession. How could she do it? Why did she do it? Most importantly, did she do it?
She was convicted of the two murders by a majority verdict (10-2) in the Chester Crown Court on evidence which ought to have been viewed view with extreme caution.
The death of her first son was initially put down to natural causes: a cot death. It was only when her second son died that suspicions were raised. The prosecution initially alleged that she had shaken her second son Harry to death. However, shortly before the trial, a key prosecution pathology witness had to concede that on re-examination of the slides the evidence was not consistent with death by shaking, and that she must have smothered her son.
By the time the case had concluded, none of the five prosecution witnesses was able to assert categorically that the deaths were not due to natural causes.
The media made great play of Sallys alcohol problem and depression (a matter entirely irrelevant as she had not taken a drink on the day either of her sons died), hers and her husbands expensive house, and the fact that her husband is also a solicitor.
On the day of his death Mrs Clark took her second son Harry to have his DPT (whooping cough) vaccination at 4.30. She and her son were noted by the surgery to be fit and happy. About an hour after she returned home, a health visitor called unannounced to deliver a replacement apnoea monitor (a device often supplied to families who have suffered a cot death. It sets off an alarm if there is a break in a childs breathing pattern). The first monitor had apparently been faulty, in that it gave frequent false alarms. Or did it? A medical consultant approached by the family after the conviction has suggested that the monitor might actually have been doing its job, and was giving an early warning of a problem with Harry.
This health visitor found no problems and mother and baby happy.
Harry was found to be dead after her husband had gone downstairs for a few minutes to make a night time drink. It was a few hours after his vaccination. The matter is controversial, but papers have been published which associate this vaccine with cot deaths.
What seems to have clinched the prosecution case was a statistic (given by a paediatrician, not even an epidemiologist) that the chances of a double cot death occurring in one family were only one in 73 million. Quite apart from the fact that the figure is quite obviously wrong (at least one family each year in this country suffers such a double tragedy - and one cot death is a predisposing factor for the second), it demonstrates how dangerous it is to rely on large numbers to back up what at best is highly tenuous evidence. The chances of winning the lottery are 14 million to one against. Does that mean that the chances are so remote that anyone who does win must have cheated?
Before, during and after her trial Sally maintained her innocence. After each death, medical staff reported that she was beside herself. Is this the mark of a good actress, or an innocent woman caught up in a horrendous tragedy?
Sally Clark is to take her case to appeal. It is vital that the matter is resolved speedily. If she was wrongly convicted, it is essential that she should be given the best possible chance of rebuilding her shattered life.
Published in Solicitors Journal 10 December 1999