Wednesday, December 03, 2003

SIDS, Statistics, Accidents, Genetics, & Criminal Guilt – and, for Connoisseurs of the Law of Evidence, the "Doctrine of Chances"

There are some interesting new reports about another now-notorious UK Sudden Infant Death Syndrome [SIDS] case – the Angela Cannings case – a case in which much was apparently made out of statistics about the relative frequency (and, in particular, about the rarity) of SIDS deaths. See the following BBC reports:

October 28, 2003, BBC Report


“The case against Angela was supported by the same experts who got it wrong in the prosecutions of Cheshire Solicitor Sally Clark and pharmacist Trupti Patel.”

Nov. 3, 2003, BBC News Report


“When Cannings was convicted in April 2002, the jury had been told that the deaths of three of her children could not have been caused by a genetic defect because there was no evidence of other infant deaths in her close relatives.


“The Real Story team discovered Cannings' paternal great-grandmother suffered one infant death and Angela's paternal grandmother two.

“The issue of how investigations and prosecutions of unexplained deaths of infants are conducted came under the spotlight with the acquittal on appeal of solicitor Sally Clark.

“In that case Professor Roy Meadow told the original trial that two cot deaths in one family were a 'one in 73 million chance' - something disputed by statisticians.

“After upholding Clark's appeal, the Court of Appeal judges said the medical evidence of a 'one in 73 million chance' had been grossly misleading.


“In Cannings' case Professor Meadow told the jury her babies could not have died a normal cot death because they appeared healthy immediately before they died.”

Cf. Wilson v. Maryland, 370 Md. 191, 803 A.2d 1034 (Ct. App., August 5, 2002), wherein the Maryland Court of Appeals – Maryland's highest court – emphasized the importance of considering the possibility of dependencies due to genetics when using the product rule to calculate the probability or improbability multiple [innocent] SIDS deaths [clusters of SIDS deaths] within a single nuclear family. While I think the Maryland court is entirely right about this, I cannot help but wonder if in a case such as the Angela Cannings case, researchers should consider the possibility that the clusters of SIDS deaths in a nuclear family might be attributable in part to "family cultures" that result in intergenerational transmission of infant care practices. (I have no particular reason to think that any such factor was at work in the Cannings case but, as a scholar, I have a hunch that this possible alternative explanation – an alternative to (i) a genetic explanation and (ii) chance as an explanation – should be investigated in a situation such as the one in the Cannings case – where it is known that SIDS deaths have occurred among children of the parents or the grandparents. {Perhaps this possibility has been explored: I don't know if it has been studied or not.})