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 Wednesday, 29 January, 2003, 16:33 GMT
Q&A: The medical evidence
Sally Clark, who was jailed for murdering her two baby sons, has had her conviction overturned by the Court of Appeal.

Judges singled out medical evidence given at her first trial for criticism. BBC News Online examines the details.

What medical evidence was given at the original trial?

Sally Clarke has always denied smothering her sons - eight-week-old Harry in January 1998 and Christopher, aged 11 weeks, December 1996.

During her trial, it was suggested the boys died of "cot death syndrome".

However, medical experts called to give evidence suggested that two cot deaths in one family were highly unlikely saying the chances were one in 73 million.

Was this figure correct?

After Mrs Clark's conviction, the Royal Statistical Society took the unprecedented step of writing to the Lord Chancellor stating "there was no statistical basis" for the figure.

According to the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, second cot deaths occurr "roughly once a year".

In 2001, scientists at Manchester University discovered a genetic link among cases of sudden infant death syndrome, suggesting that multiple cases like Mrs Clark's could be more likely than previously thought.

What are the risks?

Each year in England and Wales over 3,500 babies die, most of them in the first week of life.

About one baby in 1,600 dies each year from cot death. The chance of a particular baby dying from cot death varies greatly according to the risk factors that are present in the family.

For example, if the mother is under 27 and has more than one previous child, and if both parents are unemployed and are smokers, the likelihood of a cot death is around one in 200.

If none of these factors apply, then the likelihood is far less, around one in 8,500.

What are the chances of two babies in one family dying from cot death?

There is no published information about deaths of other babies in these families.

However, the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths has come up with some figures based on a support programme it runs for families who have already had one cot death.

Of the first 5,000 babies enrolled in this programme 44 died. Each death was carefully scrutinised, and it was concluded that eight were "true" cot deaths, 11 were due to ascertained natural causes and seven arose from maltreatment. In the remainder the information was inadequate.

Officials said their figures showed that second deaths occur more often than average after a cot death.

A particular family may have special reasons for being at greater risk of a cot death.

The same social and environmental factors that were present for the first baby who died will usually apply for subsequent babies.

What have the Law Lords said?

The Law Lords quashed Sally Clarke's conviction saying it was unsafe.

They said medical evidence suggesting that the chances of two babies from one family dying from cot death were one in 73 million were grossly misleading.

In addition, they pointed to evidence that Harry had an underlying medical condition when he died.

He had been infected with staphylococcus aureus which spread to cerebral spinal fluid.

While this infection was identified in the post mortem it was not passed on to the court during the 1999 trial or the appeal hearing in 2000.

Mrs Clark's lawyers believe Harry died, in all likelihood, from a reaction to the bacteria.

The judges criticised the failure of the pathologist to pass on this information and that, as a result, the conviction was unsafe.

See also:

28 Jan 03 | England
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