Sally Clark

I found the book ‘Stolen Innocence’ on the shelves of the Law section a few months back, before I left for Oz I think. It then sat in my unstable Ikea bookcase at home until I came back from Austria and, having read two Daphnes (‘The Glass Blowers’ and ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, which bordered on bodice-ripper territory; it was so overwhelmingly romantic I wasn’t sure if I liked it) I thought that I would read something grittier. Well, I got something far more disturbing than I bargained for.

Sally Clark had 2 kids; one died when he was nearly three months old, the other at two months. The post-mortem of Harry, the second child, was performed by Alan Williams, a Home Office pathologist. The paediatrician on duty at the time of Harry’s death had recommended a paediactric pathologist, one who specialised in post-mortems on babies, but unfortunately this recommendation wasn’t taken up. If Alan Williams had been cut out of the equation, Sally Clarke would never have gone to jail on the conviction of killing both her children. There are many ‘if’s’ in her story, so many that it seems impossible to be true.

In the post-mortem Alan Williams identified retinal haemorrhages, which are a classic symptom of Shaken Baby Syndrome. He took the detective on the case to meet his friend, Michael Green, the Professor of Forensic Pathology at Sheffield University (and I was struck that they were friends; it suggested an accordance of mind, of one backing up the other’s suppositions). According to John Batt, the author of ‘Stolen Innocence,’ Green ‘teaches that many mothers murder their babies and pretend they are cot deaths’ (p. 2). Something that occurred to me when I read this line, and often throughout the rest of the book, was that the majority of the trials and investigations pertaining to Sally Clark were prevailed over by men. I couldn’t help but wonder if they understood how foreign it was for a woman to consider killing her child. Even the female prisoners in the prison to which Clark was eventually sent thought that child killers were the lowest of the low, and tormented her accordingly.

Because it seemed suspicious that both children had died, Clarke was taken to court. Initially it appeared that the case would be dismissed because there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute her: the deaths of her children simply couldn’t be ascertained. However, the prosecution brought in Roy Meadow, editor of the ABC of Child Abuse, and an intimidating presence, not least because of his style which, according to Batt, was persuasive and forthright. Meadow produced the statistic that the probability of a two cot deaths in a family was 73 million to one. The chance of winning Lotto is 14 million to one; so the impact of the statistic on the jury was unavoidable. Later, it was revealed that other studies showed that this statistic was wildly incorrect, and that the chance was 214 to one, and that there may be familial factors which predispose children to cot death. In addition, because of the lack of evidence it was unknown if Clark’s children had even died of cot death, and therefore the statistic didn’t even apply.

It also became apparent that Green had misinterpreted the slides which supposedly indicated the retinal haemorrhages. The defence found another expert to look at the slides, and he concluded that the macrophages in the slides were due to the rapid delivery of the baby at birth, rather than Shaken Baby Syndrome. Green recanted, but Clark was still convicted. The public was also against her – perhaps swayed by Meadow’s erroneous statistic, and also because Clark dressed as she would for work, in her solicitor’s suit. Like Lindy Chamberlain, she didn’t seem the mothering, nurturing type. This kind of thing just shits me – a woman doesn’t have to be a fucking earth goddess in order to love her children. Christ, people can be just so fucking stupid.

Anyway, calming down now:

Clark’s first appeal was dismissed, but she was finally released on the basis of medical evidence which indicated that Harry had died from staphylococcal septicaemia (blood poisoning which had given rise to meningitis). A forensic pathologist, Professor Byard, stated that that if this bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus, was found in two sites in a body, ‘I know I have a probable cause of death; if I find it in three, I have an actual cause of death’ (p. 425). Prof. Byard found it in eight sites in Harry’s body.

In addition (yet again), it was found that Williams knew about these results but had failed to disclose them.

Due to the incompetence of the supposed ‘professionals’ involved in this case (and I have refrained from using their titles of Sir, QC, Dr and so forth for these people because I don’t believe they deserve them), Sally Clark spent more than three years in prison. She had another child before she was taken to court, but had to leave him in the care of a foster family while the case was being heard. Eventually her husband was able to get custody of the baby but by this time Clark was in prison.

Clark ought to have been allowed to grieve in peace, but was instead forced to endure three and a half years away from her husband and son in a gaol. Her husband was similarly denied the chance to grieve. He sold their house to pay for the court costs and to be close to the prison and his wife, and in this move he also gave up his partnership in his law firm and consequently moved five years down the ladder of promotion. His devotion to his wife seemed to belong to the realm of fiction, it was so strong and magical; I didn’t know that men like that existed.

My rage, while reading this book, was insurmountable. Halfway through it, I read in the newspaper that Clark had died (I think from natural causes; it hasn’t yet been made clear) and, knowing that, the book became one of the most difficult things I have ever read – I had to force myself to get to the end. When talking to A- (a lawyer) about the case, she said this kind of thing happened all the time, and for that reason it was lucky that we don’t have the death sentence here. Yet it was a death sentence for Clark, as John Batt wrote:

The shame and daily degradation of nearly three and a half years in prison does serious psychological damage to any innocent woman. It is impossible to forecast how long it will take Sally to recover fully from what she has suffered. The successive hammer blows of the death of her mother, the deaths of Christopher and then Harry, her arrest and conviction as a serial baby-murderer and the rejection of her first appeal, followed by three and a half years of a life sentence as the ‘lowest of the low’, do terrible damage to the psyche.
I fear she may still be in prison, in her head. No sum of money can compensate her for what she went through.

It was just a tragic waste of a life, for what shone through these pages was Clark’s courage, her pluck in prison, her intelligence and her overwhelming love for her husband and children. All I can think of is King Lear, ‘bound/upon a wheel of fire’ (IV, vii), and of whom the soldiers said, after he’d died:

Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer (V, iii).

As a coda, I’ll leave you with an incident that shows the character of one of the people responsible for prosecuting Clark:

Michael Green … watches as police carry in a baby’s bouncy chair; it is an exhibit.
“I didn’t realise that we were short of chairs,” he says in a loud voice, looking for a laugh.
Sally hears, as do Mackey and Kelsey Fry and Spencer. Steve also hears — and will never forget — the joke made about the bouncy chair in which his baby son Harry died (p. 113).

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One Response to “Sally Clark”

  1. This actually made me cry. And that almost never happens.

    Becoming a mother is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; never have I felt so inadequate and floundering. You find yourself weeping with exhaustion and the kind of frustration you normally only encounter in nightmares. You spend your time doubting, questioning, analysing. You make your choices about whether to work or not (I chose the former) and then you endure other people questioning, judging and thinking they know the `kind of person’ you are. They do not.

    This was a case based on no solid evidence whatsoever, a circus of arrogant and egotistic men who presented their version of knowledge and answers as the gospel, filling in the gaping holes with woolly hypothesis and insinuation.

    I cannot begin to imagine what Sally Clark has been through. Losing two children is enough to break the strongest of women, and for her that was only the beginning. May she find some measure of peace some day, and take some comfort in knowing that the learnings from her case will help ensure other women in her situation are given the support they need and not this malignant, mysogynistic justice.

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