Every mother worries about her family's safety, and it's hard to imagine a worse nightmare than her child losing his or her life. While nothing can bring them back, there's actually something that can make that worst nightmare even more terrible than anyone could have imagined: being wrongfully accused, or even wrongfully convicted, of having murdered one's own beloved child.
Unfortunately, wrongful accusations and convictions are more common than you may have thought. Canada was horrified to realize in recent years that many innocent mothers had spent decades between them in jail because of flawed testimony from now-disgraced pathologist Charles Smith, and many Australians still remember a nation rocked and divided by the death of little Azaria Chamberlain, one of the most publicized cases in Australian legal history.
Shockingly, there's a gender gap when it comes to overturning wrongful convictions. Organisations like the Innocence Project work tirelessly to exonerate people wrongfully convicted of crimes, and have found some astonishing statistics: in the US, out of the 1,628 people who had been exonerated as of May 2015, only 148 were women. In 37% of these cases, the women were convicted due to false or misleading forensic evidence. Overall, women make up just over 10% of people convicted of violent crimes, but only 6% of people exonerated of violent crimes.
Two researchers at the US Innocent Project noticed another pattern in these wrongful convictions: they "have come to believe that, in many cases in which women were freed because no crime had been committed, sexist stereotypes had been used to conjure up a motive."
The stories you're about to read are tragic, shocking and often could have been avoided: they're also stories about mothers like us, the world that our children are growing up in, and a reminder of the role that we can play in ending sexist stereotypes for good.
15 Sally Clark - Drank Herself To Death
Sally Clark was an English solicitor who was accused of murdering her two sons, Christopher and Harry, who both died of cot death within a 2-year period of each other. Clark was wrongfully convicted in 1999, served three years of a life sentence before being exonerated.
Clark passed away in 2007. A statement from her family said that: "sadly, she never fully recovered from the effects of this appalling miscarriage of justice. Sally ... was a loving and talented wife, mother, daughter and friend."
Clark's case led to three pathologists, Sir Roy Meadow, David Southall and Alan Williams, being found guilty of serious professional misconduct: one of these decisions was overturned. A statistic presented by Meadow to the court on this case - that the chances of the cause of two children having died of SIDS in a family like hers was 1 in 73 million - was found to have been calculated erroneously, but had become a soundbite in the UK media during the case.
Sir Roy Meadow was also involved in the wrongful convictions of three other UK mothers who have since been exonerated.
14 Donna Anthony - Allegedly Smothered Her Child
Donna Anthony is an English mother who has been exonerated for wrongful conviction on the charge of the murder of her two children. After Sally Clark's conviction was overturned, an investigation took place into other murder convictions at which Sir Roy Meadow gave testimony; like Sally's case, Anthony's conviction was based largely on evidence given by Meadow.
Anthony was jailed in 1998, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In the trial, it was suggested that Anthony smothered her second child to get sympathy from her estranged husband.
She appealed her conviction in 2000, but it was not overturned. However, after the successful exoneration of Sally Clark, a series of cases such as hers were reviewed. She was finally released in 2005, after spending seven years in prison.
Anthony wept in the dock when being told that her name was cleared and that she would be returned to freedom.
A statement released by her solicitor at the time stated that Anthony "was condemned by theory based on suspicion which was masquerading as medical opinion, and it was completely wrong".
During her years in prison, she was "abandoned by her friends" and "vilified as a child-killer". Since release, she has worked to rebuild her life, and is now happily married and working in aged care.
13 Sherry Sherrett - Falsified Autopsy
Sherry Sherrett is a Canadian mother of two, who was wrongfully convicted in 1999 of murdering her four-month old son, Joshua. Sherrett was exonerated ten years later, but in the interim she had also lost her oldest son: Austin, eighteen months old at the time of Joshua's death, had been adopted into another family, and she was not legally permitted to visit him until he came of age.
Sherrett found Joshua face-down in his playpen, blue and not breathing, and immediately called 911. When emergency services was unable to revive him, she sang Joshua one last lullaby.
Tragically, the now-disgraced pathologist Charles Smith, responsible for several other wrongful convictions, conducted the autopsy on Joshua and claimed that Sherrett had been responsible for his death.
According to NPR, Smith "had no training to study cases when a crime was suspected. Even worse: Smith lied, hid evidence and used junk science. He did what it took to get a conviction... Smith had been so highly respected that defense attorneys told their clients they couldn't win if Smith testified against them."
Sherrett spent one year in prison for the charge of infanticide; she became branded a "baby-killer" both in the walls of the prison and the outside world. But several years later, Smith's reputation as Canada's leading child death expert came crashing down; Sherrett contacted the Ontario Office of the Chief Coroner to have her case included, and was eventually able to have her name cleared.
12 Tammy Marquardt - Spent 14 Years In Prison
Canadian mother Tammy Marquardt spent fourteen long years in prison for the murder of her 2-year old son Kenneth; like Sherrett, her conviction was based on erroneous testimony from the now-disgraced pathologist Charles Smith.
Her experience of wrongful conviction and the horrors of life in prison as a "baby-killer" are detailed in John Chipman’s bestselling book Death in the Family, released in January this year. Marquardt was pregnant at the time of her incarceration, and gave birth to another son Eric in jail just to have him taken away from her.
You can find an excerpt of Marquardt's heartfelt story on The Star.com, and it's well-worth reading this shocking story of an innocent woman grieving her beloved son, let down in such tragic ways by the "think dirty" (presume guilt) policy on child death that was taking place in Canada at the time.
11 Louise Reynolds - Put Into Solitary Confinement
Louise Reynolds is another Canadian mother wrongfully convicted based on evidence presented by Charles Smith. She spent two years in prison in solitary confinement after her seven-year old daughter was mauled to death by the family pit bull. Smith claimed that 80 wounds on her daughter's body were caused by a knife or scissors, leading to Reynolds' conviction.
In 2001, the case was dropped after further examination proved that the injuries were dog bites.
Louise has since tried to pursue a 7 million dollar law suit against Dr. Charles Smith after the second autopsy of her daughter proved Louise's innocence. However, a centuries-old legal rule protecting witnesses prevents Louise from pursuing her form of justice.
10 Lindy Chamberlain - Dingo Attack
Lindy Chamberlain's nine-week old daughter Azaria was killed by a dingo (a wild Australian canine) while she was camping around Uluru (Ayer's Rock). Azaria's death is now considered the only officially recorded case of a human killed by a dingo; however, hundreds of other dingo attacks have now been recorded, including some severe cases.
Dingos are much smaller than adult humans, and tend to avoid humans in general; however, the attacks that have happened to humans since certainly indicate that they can be ferocious when they do attack, and it is easy to imagine how dangerous a dingo could be to a nine-week old child.
Azaria disappeared in 1980; Chamberlain and her then-husband Michael reported to the authorities that she had been taken by a dingo. They were not believed, and Chamberlain was convicted of her murder in 1982 in a highly sensationalized case which attracted extreme media focus. The Australian public reacted negatively to her quiet, stoic countenance in the courts: as Brisbane writer and mother Bec Sparrow puts it, she "didn't grieve in the way we expected her to", and "she blamed a dingo. The entire nation blamed her."
Chamberlain spent 3 years in prison, but was released when a piece of Azaria's clothing was found near a dingo lair, leading to reasonable doubt. Her name was finally cleared 32 years after her daughter's death; in 2012, Coroner Elizabeth Morris officially announced that Azaria had been killed by a dingo.
9 Michelle Murphy - Found Her Son's Lifeless Body
At the tender age of only 17, Michelle Murphy was imprisoned for the brutal murder of her baby boy Travis. Given a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, she was set to spend the the entirety of her adult life behind bars. Twenty years later to the day that she found her son's lifeless body on the floor, the courts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, declared then-37 year old Murphy an innocent woman. (Murphy cried as her attorney explained the date's significance to reporters.)
According to writer Cary Spinwall of Tulsa World, Murphy's conviction was based on faulty blood evidence, which was overturned by DNA testing which was not available at the time of her conviction; the "dubious" testimony of a troubled teenaged neighbour who was angry at having his sexual advances at Murphy rejected, and an unrecorded incriminating statement. Cary goes on to state that "all three elements were so problematic they likely should not have been allowed in court — and jurors were prevented from hearing other evidence that might have given them reasonable doubt about convicting Murphy."
Murphy was also the mother of a daughter, who was adopted into another family. She had no contact with her daughter during her incarceration, and her daughter has chosen not to reconnect with her.
Tragically, the real murderer of Murphy's infant son has never been found. The case has been re-opened, but remains unsolved.
8 Trupti Patel - Sudden And Unexpected Death
Trupti Patel is a UK mother who lost three children to cot death between 1997 and 2001. When her third child (Mia) died, Patel was arrested on suspicion of murder, and acquitted a year later.
Sir Roy Meadow, who gave evidence in the cases of three other UK mothers who have also been exonerated, gave evidence in this case as well. Meadow stated in this case that "in general, sudden and unexpected death does not run in families": one of Patel's relatives flew from India to testify to her own experience of losing five of her twelve children in infancy to unknown causes.
A genetics expert, Michael Patton, also the court that the evidence "strongly suggested" a genetic link to the deaths of babies in her family.
At the time that the police announced their investigation, Patel said that she welcomed it, hoping that it would lead to some answers as to what had happened to her children; sadly, the investigation was fruitless, and she may never know.
7 Debra Milke - Spent 22 Years On Death Row
Debra Milke was exonerated in 2015 after spending 22 years on death row for the murder of her son, Christopher. He asked his mother if he could see Santa Claus at the mall, and her roommate, Styers, agreed to take the boy instead: in fact, Styers took Christopher out of town to a secluded ravine, and shot him.
Milke was implicated based on alleged testimony from a friend of the murderer; the detective involved in the case said Scott advised him that Milke was involved in a plot to murder Christopher. During her trial, prosecutors brought up a potential motive: a $5,000 life insurance policy on her son.
Neither Scott nor Styers testified against Milke in the courts, so this claim was based only on Saldate's testimony; Saldate also claimed that Milke confessed to the crime during interrogation. There was no recording of this supposed confession, but the jury took him at his word.
25 years after being sent to jail, and after 22 years on death row, the Arizona Supreme Court finally dropped all charges against Milke, and she left the prison sobbing. She is the second woman in the US to be exonerated from death row in the United States, and at the time of her release had spent half of her life in jail.
6 Julie Rea - No Motive And No Evidence
Julie Rea's 10 year old son Joel was stabbed to death in her home in the middle of the night in 1997. She was woken by his scream and entered his room, and was viciously attacked by the intruder. She gave the police a detailed description of the killer, but only Rea was investigated for the murder, and was indicted in 2000.
According to the Illinois Innocence Project, "during her trial, prosecutors presented several pieces of gender-biased emotional, prejudicial, and irrelevant evidence, including testimony by her ex-husband that she had contemplated aborting her pregnancy with Joel. (The testimony not only was prejudicial, it also was false. Julie's obstetrician testified that she had confined herself to bed around the clock during the final weeks of the pregnancy to reduce the risk of a spontaneous abortion.)"
Despite no motive or evidence, Rea was found guilty in March 2002. Weeks later, her story was aired on ABC 2020. The program was watched by Diane Fanning, a true crime author, who suspected that it may have been the work of confessed serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells; she contacted Sells, and he confessed to the murder that Rea had been jailed for.
The investigation attracted considerable media attention, leading to the former town mayor and the former chief of police to contact the Innocence Project with evidence suggesting that that a sherrif deputy had testified falsely at Rea's first trial, contributing to her conviction.
In 2004, the appellate court vacated her conviction, ordering her immediate release. As she was set to take her first steps as a free woman, prosecutors re-arrested her, ignoring the substantial evidence of her innocence. Rea's supporters were able to raise $75,000 in under a week to secure her release on bond.
In 2006, Rea's name was finally cleared, with a jury finding her not guilty of killing her son.
5 Kate McCann - International Sensation
Kate McCann is the mother of Madeleine McCann, whose 2007 disappearance in Portugal made headlines worldwide, with the sensationalized case being described as a "trial by media".
Madeleine has never been found, but her parents were both suspects in the murder. Allegations made with no evidence circulated both in print media and on social media for many years, haunting her parents.
The Chief Inspector in the Gonçalo Amaral, wrote a book in 2008 repeating his allegations that Madeleine's parents were responsible for her disappearance. The McCanns sued him for libel, but the decision was reversed on appeal. They also attempted to have sales of the book prevented, but were unsuccessful.
4 Saleha Khatun - Alleged Shaken Baby Syndrome
Described by Defence QC Michael Turner as an "impeccable mother", Saleha Khatun spent 18 months wrongfully accused of the murder of her 10-month old son before the prosecution dropped the case, being able to offer no evidence against her.
Khatun testified that her son died after falling out of bed and hitting his head, but was due to stand trial for his murder, with the prosecution claiming that she had killed her child by inflicting head injuries or shaking him. However, medical experts were unable to agree on how he came upon his injuries, and the case did not proceed to trial.
The judge assigned to the case expressed his regret that Khatun experience a "state of misery" for such a long period.
3 Kristine Bunch - Accused Of Arson And Murder
A fire in Kristine Bunch's mobile home took the life of her three-year old son, Tony. She was accused of arson and murder, and convicted by the jury after only several hours. Bunch was pregnant at the time of her sentencing, and the judge sneered at her belly, accusing her of getting pregnant to manipulate the courts in her favor. He then sentenced her to 60 years in prison.
While Bunch was serving her sentence, new research came out which indicated that the signs of accidental fire and arson can easily be confused, casting doubt on her conviction. 16 years after her imprisonment, she was acquitted of the crime of killing her young son.
Bunch now volunteers for the Northwestern Women's Project, a project focusing solely on exonerating wrongly convicted women.
2 Patricia Stallings - Poisoned With Antifreeze
Patricia Stallings was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of her three-month old son, Ryan. When her baby became sick, she and her husband rushed him to hospital, and tests detected high levels of ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze, in his blood. It was suspected that Ryan may have been poisoned, and he was placed in protective custody. He died several weeks later, and she was charged with his murder. Antifreeze was found in the basement of their home.
Stallings was pregnant when she was arrested, and when her second son was born, he was placed in protective custody. Despite having had no contact with his mother, high levels of ethylene glycol were detected in his blood. He was diagnosed with methylamalonic academia (MMA), a rare genetic disorder that could have explained Patricia's son's death.
Despite the clear significance, Stallings' lawyer did not bring up MMA at her jury trial.
The Stallings case was featured on “Unsolved Mysteries" a year later, and happened to been watched by the professor and chairman of the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at St. Louis University. The professor conducted additional tests on Ryan’s blood, which confirmed that the cause of death was MMA.
1 Nicole Harris - Falsified Confession
23-year old Nicole Harris was found guilty of the murder of her second son, Jaquari. His older brother Diante told the police that Jaquari had accidentally strangled himself with an elastic band from a fitted sheet in a room that the two boys shared, but the six-year old was not allowed to bear witness in the case, on the grounds that he still believed in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
Harris was sentenced to a thirty-year prison term in 2005, but was exonerated in 2012 when it was decided that the judge's decision to exculpate Diante's testimony was unreliable. The conviction was based entirely on a video recorded confession that Chicago Police acquired from Harris a day after his son's death.
Harris quickly recanted the confession, describing it as false and coerced. The confession occurred two months before an Illinois law went into effect requiring police to record the entirety of custodial interrogation of murder suspects.
The Medical Examiner's Office also changed its initial ruling that the cause of death was accidental to homicide after learning of the falsified confession.
Sources: Telegraph.co.uk, TheGuardian.com, NCBI.nlm.nih.gov, DailyMail.com, TheGlobeAndMail.com. AidWYC.org, TheStar.com, TorontoSun.com, Law.NorthWest.edu, MotherJones.com, Edition.CNN.com, TulasWorld.com, MyDailyNews.com, Mamamia.com, IMBD.com, SMH.com, LindyChamberlain.com, OrilliaPacket.com, News.Vice.com