The Sally Clark case: guilty of being a mother

When sexism and statistical ineptitude lead to miscarriage of justice

The judicial annals present cases whose simple account is enough to make people perplexed about certain failures of justice in a developed country, endowed with reputedly reliable judicial institutions. Some of these cases, which one would like to think were aberrations, were the rule, not the exception. The story of Sally Clarke is a tragic illustration of this.

Sally Clarke was serving a life sentence for the murder of two of her babies. Wrongly. Arrested in 1998, after the death of her second child, she spent three years in prison before being released in 2003. Four years later, she died of alcoholic intoxication, having failed to recover from this ordeal, separated from her only remaining son, whose parental authority had been taken away from her. How had she come to this? Two of her babies had died suddenly, a phenomenon called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, two years apart. That this happens once, passes again, in the eyes of English justice, but at the end of the second, here is that Sally Clark acts as a suspect, then as the designated culprit, even without proof of abuse. That opprobrium and suspicion fall solely on the mother, in many such cases, will not, it seems, bother anyone.

Statistical bias and negligence

Because the story of Sally Clarke is not an isolated incident: for Angela Cannings, Donna Anthony, and others, the mistakes of a failing justice system have added to the tragedy of losing several children. In all these cases, an expert, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, author of a ABC of child abuse, played a decisive role. A fallacious precept of his invention – The Meadow’s Law – has long been authoritative in such cases: “For lack of evidence to the contrary, one sudden death is tragic, two are suspicious, and three are criminal. “At the trial of Sally Clarke, the pediatrician thus explained that the probability of losing two babies by sudden death was one in 73 million. His reasoning was as follows: if the probability of a non-smoking mother losing a baby like this is one in 8453, then there is one in 73 million that she will lose two. An elementary statistical error, which would not be enough to designate a culprit, whereas, precisely, if a mother loses a baby by sudden death, the risk of losing another in this way increases considerably (1 chance in 60 ). A bacteriological test exhumed after the trial and which will play a crucial role in the acquittal of Sally Clark had highlighted the presence of staphylococcus aureus in Harry, one of Sally’s two children. Also noticeably, sudden death occurs more in boys than in girls.

England – © credit Edouard Jacquinet

Serial errors and ordinary sexism

Angela Cannings lost three babies and was convicted in 2002. An investigation by BBC journalist John Sweeney revealed that sudden deaths had already occurred in some of her ancestors, suggesting a genetic cause. Donna Anthony lost two and was convicted in 1998. Trupti Patel, who lost three children, broke the vicious cycle and was acquitted in 2003. The same year, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony were released. Each time, Roy Meadow had held the role of star expert at the helm. He was struck off the British Medical Board in 2005 and reinstated a year later after appealing. His ex-wife, Gillian Paterson, could put such errors on the account of a sickly misogyny. At the same time, history was repeating itself in Australia, recalling a famous affair and the film with Meryl Streep which was inspired by it, A Cry in the Dark. It recounted the trial of a mother accused of infanticide after losing her child in the Australian outback (a line has remained famous: “the dingo ate my baby”). In 2003, another Australian mother, Kathleen Folbigg, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder of her four children. Documents have since been uncovered suggesting genetic causes that the legal authorities have still not taken into account. In all these cases, an ordinary sexism, which makes the mother, supposedly bad, an ideal culprit, rages, recalling the old witchcraft trials or the Monique Case case, known as du Bois Bleu, which hit the headlines in the 1960s. in France: a young woman who is a little too free in a retrograde environment, blessed bread for the tabloids and gossip of all kinds.

Photo of one: credit © Edouard Jacquinet

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The Sally Clark case: guilty of being a mother

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