"DURING THE TRIAL IT EMERGED THAT THE BABIES PROBABLY DIED FROM A RARE, NEWLY DISCOVERED GENE DISORDER KNOWN AS LONG QT SYNDROME, WHICH MISSES A GENERATION BEFORE STRIKING AGAIN. MRS PATEL’S 80-YEAR-OLD GRANDMOTHER TRAVELLED FROM INDIA TO REVEAL HOW SHE HAD LOST FIVE OF HER 12 CHILDREN. THREE OF THOSE DEATHS WERE LINKED TO THE DISORDER."
As I learned more about the Patel case, I wondered how many other parents and caregivers were wrongfully charged with killing children - in the absence of concrete evidence - because a pathologist or social worker made unwarranted social assumptions about their character.
The role that false assumptions played in the Patel case is described by reporter Helen Studd in a story which appeared in the on-line version of The Times on June 12, 2003, under the heading: "Grieving mother learnt to keep her tears private."
The story appeared under the sub-heading: "Cultural differences left neighbours with the impression of a cold and heartless woman."
"The lonely tears of Trupti Patel, heard by neighbours through the walls of her house, belied her appearance as a cold, heartless mother unmoved by the deaths of three babies," the story began.
"Mrs Patel’s childhood in an Asian community had taught her to keep her grief private, even from her own mother, while her success as a career woman only reinforced her image of outward self-control," it continued.
"To a large extent, it was the cultural differences between her reserved upbringing and the more emotionally demonstrative British society that landed her in the dock at Reading Crown Court.
While those with experience of the bereavement process recognise that Hindu families grieve differently, Mrs Patel’s dearth of public tears appeared unfeeling to outsiders.
Thames Valley Police refused to believe that three cot deaths in one family could be anything other than murder.
Three ordinary cardboard boxes stacked in a wardrobe at the marital home bear the names of Amar, Jamie and Mia.
Inside are their birth and death certificates together with photographs, imprints of their feet, copies of their fingerprints and locks of hair.
Mrs Patel’s family emigrated to Britain from the Punjab in 1965 and she was born in Bolton, Lancashire, two years later.
Her childhood was a mixture of Asian and Western influences. She won a place at the town’s grammar school, developing a love of chemistry.
She studied pharmacy at King’s College London, and Greenwich Hospital.
While working towards her pre-registration qualification at Greenwich in 1990, she was introduced to Jayant Kumar Patel, a recently qualified electronics engineer, by a mutual aunt.
After seven months together the couple decided to get married.
Before the wedding she gave up her job in Greenwich and moved back to Bolton to help her parents with the preparations.
The marriage took place at a register office in Bolton, followed by a traditional Hindu ceremony, in June 1991.
After the wedding, the couple moved in with Mr Patel’s parents, whom she had met only twice before the ceremony.
For two years she lived in a house with her in-laws.
Mrs Patel soon began to find life cramped and lonely, with her husband working 200 miles away in Maidenhead, so, in 1993, the couple moved south, buying a modern three-bedroom semi-detached house, now worth £250,000, near Mr Patel’s workplace.
“It was nice to have space and privacy,” she told police. “We were very happy together.”
Mrs Patel threw herself into her career as a pharmacist at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, soon rising to the position of dispensary manager in charge of 13 staff.
The couple began to discuss the possibility of having children.
After one last exotic holiday together to Hong Kong, Malaysia and Bali, they started trying for a family.
After Mrs Patel became pregnant, a year later, she suffered a miscarriage.
Only three months later she was pregnant again.
Her first child, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was born by emergency caesarean after a 20-hour labour in 1995.
She was disappointed to learn that she would be unable to return to work on a part-time basis.
“I have no high goals,” she told the police. “I had achieved what I always said I would achieve. I did not want to go higher up the ladder.”
As her next three children died one by one from cot death, she became increasingly unable to cope.
With each death, she became increasingly resigned, afraid to grieve too long in case she was going against divine will.
She was also determined to get over the babies’ deaths quickly in order to prevent her feelings of grief passing to the next child.
Publicly, she threw herself back into work, while privately she was devastated and would spend long hours in tears.
Neighbours could hear her crying after her husband had left in the mornings.
Even during her trial, she gave the jury only occasional glimpses of her real feelings, when she could no longer control her weeping.
Her son Amar was the first to die, in 1997.
Mrs Patel found he had stopped breathing when she went to wake him for his feed.
Mrs Patel, who had trained in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, tried frantically to save him, helped by a 999 operator she telephoned.
But Amar was dead within the hour. The cause of his death was given as sudden infant death syndrome.
Mrs Patel became subdued, which to outsiders appeared as if she did not care.
Before she conceived again, she attended a conference in London into cot deaths and investigated monitors available to detect respiratory problems in babies.
Before her next baby, Jamie, was born in 1999, Mrs Patel changed the carpets and curtains at home, fearing that dust mites might have been responsible for Amar’s death.
Two weeks after Jamie’s birth, his father found him “lifeless” in his carrycot.
The panicking couple battled to revive him.
A helicopter took the baby to hospital, where doctors fought for 12 hours to save his life, but he died from a massive fit.
Again, the death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome.
While Mrs Patel was pregnant with her fourth child in 2000, she began eating organic foods.
Mia was born on May 14, 2001, at Wexham Park Hospital. Mother and baby were monitored around the clock.
Mia was transferred to the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, for specific heart, breathing and sleep-pattern monitoring. A week later she was allowed home.
A breathing monitor was placed under her cot mattress to signal an alarm if she developed problems.
Mrs Patel was unhappy with the device and wanted a more sophisticated version to strap to Mia’s chest.
Her fears over the performance of the device later proved well-founded.
After only a few days Mia began to vomit and Mrs Patel took her to the family GP, who said her condition would improve.
Back home Mr Patel took photographs of his wife cuddling Mia in bed.
Hours later, Mrs Patel found the baby apparently lifeless in her cot. The alarm had failed to activate.
Mrs Patel raced down stairs, clutching Mia, desperately forcing short breaths into her limp baby. The 22-day-old baby died at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London.
This time, a post-mortem examination found four broken ribs in the baby’s chest.
Nurses who visited Mrs Patel at home had reported that she seemed distant and refused help.
In fact, Mrs Patel was desperately trying not to become an overanxious mother.
To Jenny Thomas, chairman of the Child Bereavement Trust, this was a perfectly normal process of emotions for an Asian family who had suffered so many deaths.
To the police, however, who considered her reactions abnormal, it was a cause for suspicion.
During the trial it emerged that the babies probably died from a rare, newly discovered gene disorder known as long QT syndrome, which misses a generation before striking again.
Mrs Patel’s 80-year-old grandmother travelled from India to reveal how she had lost five of her 12 children.
Three of those deaths were linked to the disorder."
My interest in forensic pathology began with my Toronto Star investigative reporting into once famed since disgraced former doctor Charles Smith. I began this Blog after retiring from the Star in 2006 in order to follow the aftermath into the independent Goudge inquiry into many of Smith's cases. I have now begun to focus on cases involving flawed forensic science no matter where they occur (the recent Amanda Knox prosecution in Italy, for example) and am fascinated by the interest in the Blog from people in countries throughout the world. In another development, my interest in "junk science" "pseudo-experts" and the miscarriages of justice they all too often cause has drawn me deeply into the on-going U.S. death penalty debate where so many troubling cases involve issues relating to DNA and other developments in the world of forensic science. For all of this I rely on my experience as a reporter at the Toronto Star, my work as a lawyer in Ontario's criminal courts, and my abhorrence of injustice. Please send cases and developments which may be of interest to this Blog to email@example.com. Read on! Harold Levy.