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Trupti Patel

Mother cleared of killing babies

Trupti Patel

A mother has been cleared of murdering her three babies by a jury at Reading Crown Court.

There were cheers as the jury acquitted 35-year-old pharmacist Trupti Patel - who put both hands over her mouth and let out a sob as she was cleared of three counts of murder.

Mrs Patel, from Maidenhead, Berkshire, denied killing her sons Amar and Jamie, and daughter Mia between 1997 and 2001 - none of them survived beyond three months.

Outside the court she said she was "absolutely delighted".

Tremendous support

"Words can't describe how we've been feeling. It should never have come to court."

After the verdict, the NSPCC called for an overhaul of the way child death cases are investigated.

Mrs Patel's solicitor, Margaret Taylor, said in a statement: "Trupti Patel has spent the last year in torment.

"She walks from the court a free woman.

"She wants to publicly acknowledge the tremendous support she has received from her husband, friends and family."

The jury of 10 men and one woman acquitted Mrs Patel shortly after being sent out to deliberate on Wednesday, following a six-and-a-half week trial.

Her family and friends erupted with a cheer of "yes" from the public gallery as the verdicts were announced.

'Jury should decide'

Mrs Patel closed her eyes and began to shake as the verdicts on Amar and Jamie were read out but began sobbing when the jury foreman gave the not guilty verdict on Mia.

Mrs Patel was arrested following the death of Mia, the third of her children to die.

She denied she had smothered her babies or restricted their breathing by squeezing their chests.

A spokesman for Thames Valley Police defended the force's decision to investigate.

"We took a decision that there was evidence which a jury should have an opportunity to decide on, as has now occurred," he said.

The NSPCC has now called for an overhaul of the way child deaths are investigated.

Chris Cloke, of the NSPCC, said: "Sometimes it can be very difficult to ascertain why infants die.

'Back to normality'

"It is therefore absolutely vital that these tragic incidents are properly investigated without stigmatising parents.

"The NSPCC wants to see systematic review and analysis of all child deaths by teams made up of health experts, police and social service professionals."

Joyce Epstein, director of the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, said most sudden infant deaths were natural and that there was a high risk of it happening with more than one child in a family.

"Unfortunately, there is a current eagerness by some to view all sudden and unexpected deaths with suspicion, particularly where there is a second death in the family," she said.

Mrs Patel said they now wanted to "get back to some sort of normality" and said of her family: "They have never wavered. And that's what families are all about."


Patel case raises questions

Each day for six weeks Trupti Patel walked into Reading Crown Court to hear the deaths of each of her three babies discussed in the most distressing detail.

Accused of their murder, she sat in the dock listening intently to the evidence, her extended family just a few feet away in the public gallery.

Throughout they have been united in insisting she is not capable of killing her children. On Wednesday, the jury agreed.

The tragedy of this case runs deep. Not only has Trupti Patel had three babies die for sudden unexplained reasons, but she has then been acccused of their murders.

Her son Amar died in December 1997 at three months of age. Two years later Jamie died at just two weeks and one day old.

They were said to be cot deaths, but when Mia died in June 2001 the family was put under investigation. She was three weeks and one day old. She also had four fractured ribs.

The prosecution claimed that Trupti Patel had squeezed the life from her tiny daughter, but during the trial doctors said the ribs might have been fractured as paramedics tried to resuscitate her on the way to hospital.

It is entirely possible that research in the next few years will explain all sorts of diseases that we can't explain at the moment.

At the heart of the case is the assertion made by medical experts for the prosecution that cot death does not run in families, but murder does.

The defence disagreed and Mrs Patel's 80-year-old grandmother travelled from India to give evidence. She lost five babies for unexplained reasons.

There is also scientific evidence that cot death runs in some families.

Dr David Drucker is a microbiologist at Manchester University. He along with colleagues has discovered a faulty gene which means the immune system of some babies doesn't work well enough to fight everyday illnesses.

Infecting organisms

"The baby will respond less well to infection," he said.

"It will respond less well to toxins made by infecting organisms and if those toxins are very poisonous, which they are, then it's not so surprising that some of the babies with what's been called the cot death gene are more vulnerable.

"You would expect them to die with higher frequency than babies who don't have the so-called cot death gene."

It's a complex area of medicine and doctors still have along way to go before they understand the causes of cot death.

But Dr Drucker said: "It is entirely possible that research in the next few years will explain all sorts of diseases that we can't explain at the moment.

"In fact I think you'd have to be very stupid to think all the research into DNA is not going to have that effect."

Mrs Patel is not the first mother to face the trauma of being accused of murdering her own children.

Earlier this year Sally Clark was freed by the Court of Appeal after her convictions for murdering her two babies were overturned.

It was only when vital blood tests were found showing the second son had died of natural causes that Sally Clark was able to clear her name.

Her husband Steve believes in these cases mothers are presumed guilty.

"That's a reversal of the burden of proof. In these cases the parents - normally the mother - has to prove how the baby died and of course if the doctors don't know, how can the parents know? All they can say is we don't know."

The Clarks believe every unexplained death of a child should be investigated by a team of a paediatric experts.

This way a standard set of tests would be carried out by people specialised in looking into why a baby has died.

They say this would be the best way of preventing other families living through the nightmares that they and the Patels have faced.


Without prejudice
Families denied justice

If a friend of Lord Falconer can sort out a scandal in the justice system, three cheers for cronyism

The iron law of all bureaucracies is 'first we protect ourselves'. In an ideal world they would look to free themselves from scrutiny by operating under the cover of secrecy. They would strive to deflect criticism by maintaining the pretence that it was in the public interest to operate in absolute privacy.

If they could go further they would then make a breach of their secrecy a crime punishable with all penalties up to and including imprisonment. In an ideal world all bureaucracies would want to achieve the state of perfect irresponsibility achieved by the Family Division of the High Court.

I know it's only January and it's rash to make predictions, but last week there was a strong contender for the award for phoniest media commotion of the year when Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, announced that he wanted to let a little air into the system by appointing an old friend, Sir Mark Potter, as the new president of the Family Division.

The cry of 'cronyism' was yowled across Fleet Street. Shocked journalists discovered that Sir Mark had no experience of family law. They reported that Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the retiring president, had recommended that an insider be given the job, and Her Ladyship's wishes had been ignored. It wasn't only Dame Elizabeth who was upset. Other family judges resented the appointment and were furious that the job hadn't gone to one of their own.

The charge-sheet lengthened as the outrage grew, and no one stopped to wonder who in their right mind would want to keep the courts the way they are.

If Charles Dickens were around today, he'd be writing The Family Division. You might think that as a British citizen you are innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And so you are when you are charged with a criminal offence.

But if you are ever unlucky enough to be faced with the prospect of having your child taken into care - a far worse punishment than a jail term for most parents - you will find that the state need only prove that you are guilty on the balance of probabilities.

You might think that it's a basic tradition of the English law that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done and that secret justice is no justice at all. Not so in the Family Division. Enter into its courts and you enter a British Guantanamo where basic traditions no longer apply.

Like the sexist police officer who will arrest the thug assaulting a stranger in the street but dismiss a case of wife-beating as 'just a domestic', the law applies lower and shabbier standards to families than criminals.

It's not merely that the cases are held in secret. Nothing about them - court papers, expert reports, statements from witnesses - can be made public without the permission of the court. The inevitable consequence of secrecy is conspiracy theory. The victims of the system see scheming cabals everywhere. Fathers 4 Justice may be an unpleasant group whose members destroy a plausible case with their misogyny and violence. But when they complain about a feminist plot to make sure that the system is 'stuffed from head to toe with ideological dinosaurs who believe that fathers are dispensable' it's possible to feel a touch of sympathy for them.

Why shouldn't they believe that justice is a racket when the checks and balances aren't there?

Far worse than the conspiracy theorists without are the fantasists within. Like all closed systems, family law is prone to attacks of collective mania. Delusions sweep the minds of otherwise sane men and women because there are no sceptical outsiders to bring them up short. In the 1980s and 1990s, the modern witch-crazes of satanic and ritual abuse swept through social service departments and the courts. They died down only to be replaced by Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, an impressively difficult name for a criminally-vague theory, which purported to explain otherwise inexplicable deaths and injuries by asserting that parents were seeking attention by harming their children.

After the scandalous miscarriages of justice against Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Trupti Patel, Munchausen's syndrome by proxy should have been finished. But a list of 40 cases produced by the Telegraph found that parents were still suffering in the Family Division courts. Readers said that when their children had accidents or brittle bones or undiagnosed illnesses they were accused of shaking them, hitting them or seeking attention in the Munchausen manner. One case involved a couple in Essex who had taken the baby to hospital because he had a bump on his head. They were accused of attacking him. They managed to find medical evidence which proved their innocence, but it was too late: the boy had been adopted. No appeal. No redress. The child was lost.

I'd love to be able to check out the story. But anyone who gave me information would be in contempt of court - and I'd be in contempt for seeking answers.

One story I can tell you about is that of Mrs B. In all seriousness and solemnity she was accused of administering 'some unidentified infected substance' which caused her daughter to have 'potentially life-threatening' fits in a Kent hospital. The mother was branded as yet another Munchausen attention-seeker and had her daughter taken from her. Sarah Harman, the mother's solicitor, was furious, and you can't blame her for losing her temper. Even the tamest lawyer would rage that the Family Division was off with the fairies again if she saw a client lose a child for unspecific and uncontestable charge of administering some unidentified infected substance.

Roy Meadow

She saw the chance to act when Sir Roy Meadow, the man who coined the term Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, was discredited. Harriet Harman, the solicitor general, announced an inquiry into Munchausen cases, and, as luck would have it, Sarah was Harriet's sister. She sent her details of the case, and Harriet Harman passed them onto Margaret Hodge. Mother and solicitor also spoke to journalists without identifying the child.

For breaking the omertá of the Family Division, Sarah Harman was hauled before a Family Division judge, Mr Justice Munby. He ruled that the passing of details of the case to Harriet Harman and Margaret Hodge were contempts of court. He said she was guilty of 'suppres sio veri and suggestio falsi', which is fighting talk even for non-Latin speakers, and she now faces potentially ruinous disciplinary action.

Munby's ruling may, however, turn out to be double-edged: one of those judgments which is fine in theory but preposterous in practice. Ever since secrecy was imposed on the family courts in 1960, councillors and MPs have found that they can't do their democratic duty and check out their constituents' stories of heart-rending abuses of power.

The most notorious incident was during the Rochdale witch craze when children were dragged from their homes by social workers convinced they had uncovered a coven of Lancashire devil worshippers. Parents went to their councillors, who could do nothing because they had been warned that it was illegal to ask what was going on.

What Munby has done is take the absurdity to a new level. His ruling meant that it was a contempt of court to tell the solicitor general, who is responsible for the honest functioning of the legal system, and the Minister for Children, who is responsible for the welfare of children, about an alleged miscarriage of justice involving a child.

Before readers complain that social workers have a terrible job and are damned if they do intervene and damned if they don't, I must say that I agree. I should add too that family judges are good men and women who are asked to make decisions which can't possibly satisfy everyone. For all that, a rotten system can corrupt, and cheeringly there are signs everywhere that its rottenness is being noticed. Sarah Harman is pointing out that Canada and Australia operate open courts while protecting the welfare of the child. They stick by principles of English law, which English judges have abandoned. MPs on the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee are getting ready to recommend greater openness and even Butler-Sloss and Munby are accepting that reform is needed.

If to make reform work Lord Falconer has to parachute in a crony, well three cheers for cronyism. Let's have more of it. If Dame Elizabeth doesn't like it, that's good. If Family Division judges are resentful, that's better. We should urge Lord Falconer to cram the bench with lawyers who haven't been contaminated by decades of secrecy. If he runs out of legal cronies, there's always his milkman, postman, lady who does and teenage children. Anything and anyone will be better than the status quo.