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Pathologist in Sally Clark murder case is charged with withholding vital evidence

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 27 January 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:216
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

The Home Office forensic pathologist in the Sally Clark murder case was incompetent and withheld vital evidence that could have cleared her, the General Medical Council heard this week.

Alan Williams, 58, is charged with a catalogue of failures in carrying out post mortem examinations two years apart on 11 week old Christopher and 8 week old Harry Clark; in not disclosing results of microbiology and biochemistry tests on Harry; and in the evidence he gave for the prosecution at Mrs Clark's murder trial at Chester Crown Court in 1999.

Mrs Clark was convicted of murdering both boys and served nearly three years in prison before her conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2003.

The appeal court ruled that her conviction was unsafe, because the test results showed the presence of Staphylococcus aureus in various sites in the body, including in the cerebrospinal fluid. This raised the possibility, which had not been put before the jury, that Harry might have died from natural causes.

After performing the post mortem examination on Christopher in 1996, Dr Williams gave the cause of death in his report as an infection of the lower respiratory tract. In his 1998 post mortem report on Harry, he concluded that the baby had died from shaking.

After Harry's death he re-examined the material left over from Christopher's post mortem examination and changed his opinion about the cause of death, which he concluded was probably smothering.

Dr Williams, a consultant histopathologist at Macclesfield General Hospital, denies serious professional misconduct and does not admit any wrongdoing, his counsel, James Turner QC, told the GMC's professional conduct committee.

An application by Mr Turner to have the case thrown out because of “scandalous delay” was rejected by the committee.

In relation to both babies, Dr Williams's performance had “impaired the reliable evaluation of the evidence of the cause of death,” according to the charges. He is accused of failing properly to discharge his duty as an expert witness.

In his report on Harry, Dr Williams wrote: “There is no evidence of acute infection or inflammation, particularly there is no evidence of pneumonia, tracheobronchitis nor meningitis. There is no evidence that this child died as a result of natural disease.”

The report, said the GMC's charge sheet, “wrongly implied that the microbiology and biochemistry results were neither evidence nor contained evidence which might suggest acute infection or inflammation including meningitis.”

Dr Williams's defence is that he believed that the presence of the bacteria was the result of contamination. Mr Turner told the committee that there was no evidence that Harry had had an infection. “The child had been seen by a health visitor a few hours prior to his death, and the child was apparently healthy.”

A letter to Dr Williams from a consultant microbiologist who carried out further tests on the samples that had tested positive for S aureus concluded: “In the absence of any localised inflammatory response and in the absence of any suggestion of immune deficiency, I think it is unlikely that this organism contributed to the death of the child. It is somewhat unusual to find a contaminating organism so widely spread, and it may be that there was a transient or terminal bacteraemia.”

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