Updated: Feb 20
We hear a lot about - from experts nowadays. Professor such-and-such or Dr Thingy, bristling with the authority their qualifications bestow upon them, academics pop up in the mainstream seemingly every other day offering their expertise. ‘Trust the experts!’ Yes, but did you know that experts often disagree with one another? Consumers of mainstream content might think such a contention sounds like heresy: if not experts then who do we trust?
Though two decades have passed since the Sally Clark case, reading John Batt’s account of this miscarriage of justice is a harrowing experience. Why? Well, the same system that convicted an innocent mother based on the testimony of ‘experts’ is still with us today. Moreover, with the pre-eminence accorded to ‘experts’ higher than it has ever been, and with the mainstream pushing the fallacy that amongst experts consensus exists, what happened to Ms Clark could so easily happen again. That’s a scary thought leafing through the pages of this book.
The first thing to appreciate about this book is that its author John Batt was a close friend of Ms Clark’s police chief father; he knew Sally quite well and so his position is, as he readily admits, always one of strong advocacy. Given that he joined the campaign to quash her conviction, it couldn’t be anything else. A solicitor himself and writer of 1970s television dramas The Main Chance and Justice (currently enjoying a re-run on Freeview) Mr Batt is both legal advocate and family friend. Convinced there had been a serious miscarriage of justice, his tenacity shines through on ever page of this disturbing book.
The facts of the case are well-known: The Clarks were a high-flying couple living in the plush commuter enclave of Wilmslow (a stone’s throw away from my much humbler abode at the time) when Sally gave birth in the late 1990s to first Christopher and then, a year later, Harry. Neither child survived past 10 weeks. Sally was ultimately accused of murdering both infants. Her story made front-page headlines throughout the 2000s. With his solicitor’s eye for right and wrong, Mr Batt chronicles a quite extraordinary story – one whose tragic end not even he, writing in 2004, could surely have foreseen.
Based on the testimony of leading pathologists and various other medical ‘experts’ Sally was found guilty of murdering both sons and sentenced to life imprison. Prosecution experts decided that haemorrhage of the eyes pointed to shaken baby syndrome; the high-powered solicitor had apparently become depressed with the reality of motherhood – the weight gain, broken sleep, demands and most of all the effect on her career. She’d become so frustrated that she’d taken it out on her babies. That was the prosecution case.
But the actual facts mattered not. Not when Professor Roy Meadow wrongly announced that the chances of two cot deaths in the same family were 73 million to 1 . . . Many feel that damning and wholly false statistic damned Sally in the eyes of the jury, the media and the public. (Meadow, one of the world’s leading paediatricians and whose evidence had condemned many mothers of murdering their babies, would end his distinguished career in disgrace.)
Throughout the text Mr Batt deals with the various twists and turns in the medical arena with some skill, avoiding the pitfall of becoming too bogged down with medical jargon. What transpires is a quest, lead by Mr Batt, Steve Clark and a small but dedicated group of advocates to overturn the high court conviction and get Sally released. Meanwhile, Sally must adjust to life behind bars, the injustice and despair. As a close family friend, the author provides a ringside view of this traumatic experience.
And so, a four-year quest begins to challenge the verdict, to do the impossible. Mr Batt comes across as indefatigable and incredibly modest too. The author pretty much puts his own legal career on hold as the defence prepare for a retrial. There are plenty of highs and lows along the way. Eventually, the team manages to obtain the expert opinions of several specialists in paediatric medicine. But will it be enough? As Batt concedes, overturning the system is not easily done; reputations are at stake.
It's shocking to realise how the testimonies of leading ‘experts’ wrongly convicted Ms Clark. It’s even more shocking to apprehend that without the energy and contacts of Mr Batt and Steve Clark, without their absolute determination to challenge the verdict, Sally Clark would have spent her life in prison. How many other mothers – people – similarly languish in prison based on the flawed testimony of ‘experts?’
While reading this account, and not wishing to take anything away from Mr Batt and the Clark’s phenomenal support team – which included media and PR contacts – it’s impossible not to ponder another question: what if the Clarks had not been middle-class pillars of the community? What if they’d been an average working-class couple rather than a pair of high-flying corporate lawyers? Who would have fought the corner of Mr and Mrs average?
What makes this book even more poignant is the subsequent fate of Sally – hinted at in the final chapters of this book. For although Sally is finally exonerated and she and Steve are back together with their third son – a family once again – the book ends on an ominous note. Sally is unable to forget the trauma she has endured. Things do not magically return to ‘normal’ and it seems they never will. Although Mr Batt and the team have achieved an incredible feat based on perseverance and tenacity, the reader is left with the awful feeling – rightly as it would transpire – that here is a story that can’t possibly end happily.
For all those believers in the sanctity of ‘experts’ this is a book that will not only question that cherished axiom, but shatter it into a thousand pieces. If there is one book you promise yourself to read before the Grim Reaper approaches, make it this one.