Life at the Bar – Three is Murder I
The death of a child is a tragedy for the parents, but imagine not only has your baby died but you are arrested and interviewed as a murderer. A number of cases which were highly publicised were brought against mothers who were diagnosed as having Munchhausen’s by proxy. The condition was the brainchild of a pediatric Professor working in Leeds. He believed that some women harmed their children in order to get attention and sometimes went so far as to kill them. The child was usually a quite young baby and the cause of death was asphyxiation. These deaths were often given the name of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or more commonly ‘a cot death.’ The Professor’s theory was that one cot death was a tragedy, two was suspicious, three and it was murder. I was instructed to represent one such woman. I’ll call her Enid.
She had given birth to three children all of whom had died on and around their first birthday. Forensic pathologists had carried out post mortems and found nothing suspicious. Two were said to be ‘cot deaths’ and, one the result of a viral infection. Now she was expecting her fourth child and not surprisingly the local Social Services Department were anxious that this child should not meet the same fate. The practice at the time, and I assume still is, was for joint committees of social workers, police and health professional discussing problem cases. Enid’s was one of those. Someone made the decision to ask Enid to travel to Leeds and see the Professor. She agreed to do so.
Normally she would have been escorted to Leeds by one or two social workers. However, instead it was a social worker and a female police officer. On the train journey north, Enid admitted she had killed the three children. The three women returned to London and Enid was interviewed under caution, where she repeated the admission. She was charged with their murder and remanded to a secure psychiatric unit. When she saw a solicitor she denied murdering the children.
I had a QC leading me in this case and when we saw her at the hospital she again admitted the offences. I returned to Chambers and almost as soon as I arrived Enid was on the telephone saying it wasn’t true and she had not killed her babies. Normally when a client says they have committed the offence the barrister cannot represent them if they plead not guilty, but the circumstances here were unusual because of Enid’s fragile mental health and we decided to press on with her defence.
To be continued.
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