Page last updated at 12:47 GMT, Thursday, 4 December 2008

Inside the Shannon Matthews trial

By Danny Savage
BBC News

Shannon Matthews
Shannon Matthews went missing on her way from school in February

The body language of Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan throughout their trial spoke volumes.

Not once did the two people who conspired to kidnap Matthews's daughter, Shannon, glance at or acknowledge each other. A prison officer sat in the chair that separated them.

Matthews would stare straight ahead, her arms often folded defiantly as the evidence and the witnesses were heard.

Donovan sat with his shoulders hunched forward staring down for most of the time. Occasionally the 40-year-old with a very low IQ would talk to a helper who sat in the dock with him explaining proceedings.

Karen Matthews

Karen Matthews came up with no less than five different accounts of why Shannon had disappeared
When Matthews came to give evidence, she quickly went from a repetitive "I did not" attitude, when asked if she was involved in Shannon's disappearance, to a near permanent state of tears.

The judge, Mr Justice McCombe, even asked her if she wanted a box of tissues.

But the prosecution wanted to know why she was crying in the first place.

"Is it because you are feeling sorry for yourself?" the 33-year-old mother of seven was asked.

In between sniffs she denied that was the case. But this was a consummate liar in action.

Matthews came up with no less than five different accounts of why Shannon had disappeared. But as the prosecution rather succinctly put it, if she was telling the truth, there would only be one account.

School bullying

Court 12 at Leeds Crown Court is a small, intimate courtroom for such a big trial. The public gallery was filled with about 30 people on most days, and there were always detectives who investigated the disappearance sitting in on proceedings.

During the trial, the court was played television news footage, including a Mother's Day appeal made by Matthews, in which she said she was sure someone who knew Shannon and her family was holding her.

The jury was also told how Donovan, a father-of-two, had been bullied at his special school and, as a result, changed his name by deed poll aged 19 from Paul Drake to Michael Donovan. He named himself after a character in his favourite 1980s sci-fi drama, V.

Donovan's former employer went on to describe him as a "dimwit".

Michael Donovan
Michael Donovan was described as "weak in body and mind"
He recounted a time when he sent his employee out with a 20 note to fill up the works' van with diesel. A little while later he found Donovan driving the van around outside and asked him what he was doing.

Donovan explained he could only get about 18.60 into the tank and was running some off so he could get the full 20 worth in.

The culmination of Donovan and Matthews's plan to claim the reward money for Shannon was certainly lacking in cunning.

The idea was to drop Shannon off in Dewsbury's busy market and allow her to walk through it while Donovan drove round to the other side. There he would pretend to find her, take her to the police station and claim the reward money.

But there were obvious flaws. Firstly, allowing Britain's most high-profile missing child at the time to walk through a busy market was always going to run the risk of another member of the public finding her first.

Secondly, if it had worked, one of the first things police would have asked Shannon would have been: "Where have you been all this time? Who have you been with?"

What was Donovan going to do when she pointed her finger across the room and said: "With him"?

Case legacy

Laughable perhaps, but not so when you think of the effect on an innocent nine-year-old girl.

On the one hand, Donovan did not physically hurt her and, by some accounts, Shannon was happy for some time at his flat where she was able to watch cartoons and eat the food she wanted.

But on the other hand, she was fed strong sleeping tablets and might well have been kept on a long elastic leash when Donovan left the house. It allowed her to reach the toilet and the living room, but not to escape.

The bed where Shannon was hidden
Shannon was hidden inside a bed when police called
Then when the police came calling at the flat Donovan made her hide under the bed with him.

The psychological effects on Shannon, who is now 10, could be long lasting. And that was what this trial was really about. The appalling way in which a mother used her own daughter as bait in a plot to get money.

During the time Shannon was missing, police sources said they were sure the answer was within Shannon's extended family. That was true. Donovan was the uncle of Shannon's stepfather at the time, but nobody had mentioned him so he was way down the suspect list.

The legacy of this trial will be far reaching. A missing child really is every parent's worst nightmare.

But this affair will make the media ask very unfeeling questions at the beginning of any similar case that occurs in the future.

We will all be more suspicious of such incidents because of the selfish and cruel actions of Karen Matthews and Michael Donovan.

Why did they not know better? How could they ever have hoped to get away with such a strange, hopelessly planned crime?

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