A case of murder and the BMJ
(Published 05 January 2002)
Cite this as: BMJ 2002;324:41
- Roy Meadow, emeritus professor of paediatrics and child health
- Leeds LS17
Sally Clark, a 34 year old mother, was convicted in 1999 of the murder of her two sons Christopher, who died at the age of 11 weeks in December 1996, and Harry, who died at the age of 8 weeks in January 1998. Both the children had been previously healthy; they died suddenly in her care, in the evening, at home. Postmortem examinations of both children showed multiple abnormal findings.
After the verdict, the media reported the family's claim that both children had “died of cot death” and that incorrect statistical evidence given at the trial had greatly underestimated the likelihood of recurrence of cot death. The BMJ published an editorial as deficient in its sources as it was sensational in its title.1 It was called “Conviction by mathematical error?” and it ignored the fact that at the trial neither the defence nor any of the expert witnesses advanced the claim that the children's deaths were examples of sudden infant death syndrome. The risk of recurrent sudden infant death syndrome was irrelevant to the conviction.
Sally Clark appealed against her conviction for murdering her two infant sons
Her appeal was partly based on a claim that misleading evidence was given about the likelihood of two cases of sudden infant death syndrome occurring in the same family
The BMJ published an editorial questioning the statistic and therefore the conviction
None of the medical experts believed the two boys' deaths were examples of sudden infant death syndrome
Statistics about the syndrome were therefore irrelevant to the case
The appeal court upheld the conviction
What was the evidence?
The trial, at Chester Crown Court, was long, and the fact that both parents were solicitors led to more publicity than usual. Many medical experts were called by both prosecution and defence, including eight pathologists with …