The case of Sally Clark

Since the high profile cases involving Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, the issue of care proceedings, the standard of proof and use of medical experts in criminal trials has come under much scrutiny in both the press and the courts. This project which is based on a miscarriage of justice shall focus solely on the case of R v Sally Clark (1998) who was wrongly accused by a ten to two majority of murdering her two children and sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime that she quite simply did not commit. Sadly, due to misleading expert advice and flaws in Britain's legal system, three years had passed before her conviction was quashed.

This case has highlighted the issue of incompatability between science and our legal system in that regarding 'certainty', the courts require it but science cannot always provide it1. It has taken high profile cases such as that of Sally Clark to bring light to the difficulties that can arise when either applying science or using expert witnesses in the courtroom. In this portfolio, the key events of Sally Clark's case as well as the evidential issues which led to her miscarriage of justice shall be discussed in great detail.

The effect that Sally Clark's case has had on the use of expert witnesses in trials also shall be discussed as it had drawn attention to the fact that reform is needed in our legal system to prevent further miscarriages of justice. Sally Clarke's two sons, Christopher and Harry died suddenly aged eleven weeks and eight weeks in 1997 and 1998. Sally and her husband, mindful of a possible genetic link to the Harry's death asked for a specialist pathological examination2. This however was ignored and instead the post mortem was performed by Dr Williams, the local Home Office pathologist.

In the autopsy, Dr Williams reported retina and brain damage attributed to 'baby shaking'. A review of Christopher's death was therefore prompted, following which the original certificate which stated "natural causes" for the infant's death was replaced by "smothering" due to blood traces found in his lungs and a cut inside his lip (Professor Green later admitted a mistake on his behalf in that he failed to examine Christopher's body accurately and there were actually no traces of blood in his lungs 3). Sally and Steve were then arrested on suspicion of the murders of their two sons.

Sally was tried for the murder of Christopher and Harry in July 1998 for which she was found guilty and was thus sentenced to life imprisonment4. Sally's defence lawyer found it "inconceivable" that she would lose and believed that "Meadow's Theory" was responsible for her conviction5. It was for this reason, amongst others, that Sally Clarke appealed against the initial decision. The Appeal Court heard and dismissed the first appeal as well as refusing to hear evidence from two statistical experts on the basis that it was hardly "rocket science"6.

The Court of Appeal held that "Meadow's Law" and his infamous statistic that the odds of one family suffering the loss of two babies through cot death is 'seventy three million to one', would not have influenced the jury unduly, resulting in an unsuccessful appeal on 2nd October 20007. With new evidence in July 2002, Sally Clarke appealed her case for a second time. Research carried out by Manchester University's Dr David Drucker identified a "cot death gene" which firmly contradicts Meadow's theory8.

"Secret" reports carried out by pathologist Dr Williams were also discovered which indicated that Christopher had died of natural causes and were thus also used in her defence. It was for these reasons that Sally was acquitted on her second appeal. Thus, on the 29th January 2003 Sally's innocence was proven as she was cleared of murdering her two children. Sally Clark, a thirty five year old solicitor, lived in Wilmslow, Cheshire with her husband, Stephen who is also a solicitor. After getting married 1990, Sally gave birth to their first child Christopher on 26 September 1996.

He was described by health officials as a bonny baby but died on the 13th December 1996, when Sally Clark was alone in their home9. Sally called an ambulance at twenty five to ten that night. When the ambulance arrived, she was panic-stricken and in distress. Baby Christopher was declared dead shortly after the call at twenty to eleven. Dr Williams who carried out the post mortem and found inter alia bruises on the body and a small split in the inner lip, thought at the time that they were probably consistent with resuscitation attempts (at the trial however, he firmly believed that the bruises were evidence of abuse10).

At the time the cause of death was considered to have been lower respiratory tract infection and it was treated as a case of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). The body was cremated, but photographs had been taken and slides of the lungs were preserved. The couple's second child, Harry, was born prematurely on 29 November 1997 and died on 26 January 1998. Sally Clark's husband was at home when he died but it was Sally who discovered their dead son. She called an ambulance at half past nine and when the ambulance arrived; her husband was kneeling beside the baby on the bedroom floor.

There was no sign of life and despite resuscitation attempts; Harry was pronounced dead at twenty to eleven that night. Dr Williams's findings at post mortem indicated shaking on several occasions over several days, and it was thus considered that shaking was the likely cause of death. This prompted a review of the cause of Christopher's death and as more tests were carried out, Dr Williams altered his opinion, concluding that Christopher's death could have been caused by smothering 11.

On 23 February 1998, Sally and her husband were arrested on suspicion of Harry's murder. In a lengthy interview the following day, she gave a detailed account of relevant events and strenuously denied murdering her son. On 9 April 1998 she was further interviewed in relation to Harry and was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Christopher. She was interviewed again on 2 July 1998 and on the advice of her solicitor she declined to answer questions12. It was July 1998 when Sally Clark was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of her two sons.

The evidential issues produced by the prosecution and defence which included medical reports, test results and the opinion of expert witnesses in R v Clark that led to her conviction, appeal and finally her acquittal shall be discussed in this section. There was much speculation amongst medical practitioners when discovering the cause of death of Sally's two children, Christopher and Harry. As there were no definite answers to this quest and the forensic evidence was slim to nonexistent, Dr Williams suggested in a statement that Harry had been shaken to death because of the discovery of retinal hemorrhages in his post mortem examination13.

He later changed his statement however, asserting that his original diagnosis was wrong and indicated the possibility that the infant had been smothered. Dr Williams believed that neither death could be considered as SIDS ('cot death') because of the existence of recent and old injuries that had been found in each case, for which there was no sufficient evidence as to how they had been caused14.