Cases not necessarily 'open and shut'

A 22-year-old British man, Luke Walker, has been charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Chelsea Hyndman on the Greek island of Crete. Panorama's John Sweeney, whose investigative journalism has examined several cases of wrongful conviction, warns that often things may not always be as open and shut as they might first appear and worries when the media jumps to conclusions.

To some, this is how things might look at first blush in Malia, Crete - a sun-soaked corner of the Greek island that is full of Brits enjoying their holidays. Among them was a young couple intent on working their way through the summer while soaking up the sun. What if that couple had been drinking - a lot. And then things turn ugly. Luke Walker, jealous at Chelsea, originally from West Yorkshire, beats her up so badly she dies of ruptured internal organs. He's got scratches on his skin and the clear conclusion is that her injuries can only be consistent with him beating her up.

A Greek police spokeswoman in Athens said: "This was not due to illness. It was the result of physical violence." She said the couple were living together in rented rooms in the coastal holiday resort of Malia and added: "It is said that they often quarrelled."

Some will quickly jump to, "Lock him up and throw away the key".

Some early news reports of the death here in the UK looked pretty damning, with Walker being accused of "avoiding the cameras" as he was escorted under police guard into the courthouse.


Mr Walker has now been charged with murder.

But if we stop and rewind the tape of him being brought to court we see Luke Walker, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and looking shattered. The police car he is in pulls up and Walker emerges handcuffed from the back seat. The officer who escorts Walker seems professionally embarrassed by the presence of the cameras outside the magistrates' court. The policeman grabs Walker by the back of the right arm, gathers pace and heaves him past the reporters and cameraman, physically manhandling him up the stairs and into the courthouse.
It is the policeman who appears more eager to avoid the cameras than Walker.

If Luke Walker is innocent then he's just lost the love of his life and, worse, been accused of her murder.

As it happens, I know two of Walker's relatives, Carl and Rona Swain. Carl is the brother of Angela Gay who was falsely convicted of salt-poisoning the little boy, Christian, who she adopted with her husband, Ian Gay.

In that case, the doctors worked out the level of salt in the dying boy and concluded that he must have been poisoned with salt. The main intellectual framework for this deduction was 'Non-accidental salt poisoning' - a theory provided by Professor Roy Meadow back in 1993.

That paper failed to distinguish between the symptoms you might see in salt-poisoning and the symptoms you might see in natural disease. It failed to give proper weight to the possibility of brain-related chemical imbalances causing too much salt in the blood, not malign intention.
Christian had a failure in his thirst mechanism inside his brain, which meant that he was not poisoned with salt at all, and Angela and Ian Gay went to prison because the expert opinion was just plain wrong.

The Swains tell me that Luke Walker loved Chelsea to bits and that they were true sweethearts, that he could not have killed her. I have no idea about that and because they are his family I have to ask - you would say that, wouldn't you?

But before the lynch-mob surrounds Mr Walker and decides that a man in handcuffs must have done something wrong - it is perhaps fair to point out the following: Luke Walker has never done anything truly horrible in his life. Also worth noting is that Chelsea had gone out on a girl's night without Walker and at one point tripped over a girlfriend's leg, falling heavily, so that her tummy landed on her own clenched fist - an accident that seven witnesses remember happening on 6 May.

She fell ill five days later and died on the 17 May. Such an innocent explanation as to how Chelsea received the injuries that police say killed her - especially the timing - seems odd.

But odd accidents can kill.

Natasha Richardson was a beautiful actress who went skiing, banged her head, recovered, talked, joked - a lucid interval - and then she died. The doctors call what happened to Natasha TADD, Talk And Deteriorate and Die - in plain English that you may receive a potentially fatal injury, but there is a time lapse before you pass on.

As it happens, I know her aunt, Vanessa Redgrave, a bit - we both bang on about Chechnya, with good reason - and the loss of this beautiful and generous woman was a great tragedy. But if there is any good, ever, to come out of someone's death, it might just be to prevent future injustice.

So, before the crowds begin to circle in Crete and decide that Luke Walker is guilty, it is worth pausing to remember that experts can and do sometimes get it wrong, that wonderful people can die by accident, and that a man is innocent until proven guilty.

Why I asked Lord Mandelson if he is the new "Sheriff of Nottingham"

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John Sweeney | 10:51 UK time, Monday, 21 September 2009

Tackling the politician known as the Prince of Darkness is not for the faint of heart

Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, was running the country while the prime minister was on holiday when I caught up with him for our story into Britain's banks one year on from a massive £86bn taxpayer-financed bail out.

Oozing power from every pore, he was in Nottingham to launch yet another government scheme to help hard-up firms.

The government has given about half a billion pounds to firms, which sounds a lot until you compare it to the £86bn they have given the banks. The particular scheme he was launching in the land of Robin Hood is worth £75m.

So my question to the First Secretary pretty much wrote itself: "It's only £75m quid. And the government is giving billions to the banks. Some people might say you're robbing from the poor taxpayer and giving to the rich bankers. Lord Mandelson, are you the new Sheriff of Nottingham?'

Off he went, each phrase expertly articulated.

To my mind he wasn't answering the question, so I had another go - 75 million (for small businesses) plays billions (for the banks)? A beautifully coiffed eyebrow lofted skywards. The Prince's features framed a question mark: "If I can just ask, where are you from?" came the question.

From BBC Panorama, I replied.

Up shot the other eyebrow: "BBC Panorama, I could have guessed." Long sigh. "I don't think that the cynicism that you seem to be bringing to this subject is worthy of the task in hand and it's a big task and it's a big challenge."

I interrupted him to ask why my question was cynical.

Lord Mandelson popped me on the naughty step. He announced that he would take my questions last.

While the camera was looking the other way, his chief press officer, a soft-spoken Irishman called Peter Power, told me that I could have one more go, but that I couldn't interrupt with any more cynicism.

I did a bit of philosophy in between my degree in drinking at LSE. Diogenes The Cynic is my favourite philosopher. He once told the ruler of the Known World, Alexander The Great, to "get out of my light." Two and a bit thousand years on, nothing very much has changed.

When it was finally my turn, I asked Lord M about bankers' bonuses. He said, lengthily, that the bankers had taken excessive bonuses in the past. Aha! I thought and pounced: "But you're the Business Secretary, why can't you stop the banks having bonuses?"

He placed his hand on my back and said, softly: "Thanks."

I did not give up: "But you are the Business Secretary. Why can't you stop the banks having the bonuses?"

There was no reply.

I tried one last time. "No last word on bankers' bonuses?"

Silent, enigmatic, he disappeared into his black space cruiser and was gone.

You can watch some of our brief encounter here.

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The debate: Rickets or child abuse?

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John Sweeney | 16:35 UK time, Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Is a new global epidemic of rickets being confused with mistaken findings of child abuse?

Humans need sunshine to make Vitamin D to make bones.

If you're pregnant, white and you cloak your skin with sun-block in New Zealand, you may end up giving your baby rickets - an age-old disease which leads to weak and easily fractured bones. And those symptoms are seen as a serious danger sign for possible child abuse.

Equally, if you're pregnant, Thai and live in dark-for-half-the-year Sweden, you are in danger of not getting enough sun - and that also means your babies could end up with rickets.

The problem is that rickets and child abuse share some of the same symptoms - so which is it?

That's not an academic question for Erik Eriksson from Sweden, who faces four years in prison because he has been held to have violently shaken his 16-day-old daughter, Linnea.

His Thai partner, Nancy, stands by him. There is no other evidence that he is a child abuser.

Lock him up and throw away the key - you might be tempted to say.

Erik is in dire trouble because his daughter had multiple fractures and bleeds over the brain. And, many experts say, they must have been caused by someone. But that is not a fact.

It's a deduction based on a controversial theory called Shaken Baby Syndrome - see my previous blogs on the Keran Henderson case. Keran is serving a sentence for manslaughter but she denies shaking the child in her care.

And many people who know her believe her.

In Erik's case, there is another explanation for his daughter's condition, one for which there is evidence, in New Zealand, the United States and many other countries, and that places a big question mark against the 'certainty' of Erik's guilt.

The other theory argues that Linnea's fractures were caused by congenital rickets because her mother, Nancy, is originally from Thailand and the combination of the dark pigmentation of her skin and the weak sunshine in the far north of Europe caused Vitamin D deficiency and that caused weak bone growth in the womb and that caused Linnea's fractures.

But what about the bleeds over the brain? Well, there is evidence that they can happen naturally in child birth and it is very hard to date them precisely. So, not abuse, necessarily..

Dr Kathy Keller and Professor Patrick Barnes at Stanford University have written a paper - 'Rickets vs. abuse: a national and international epidemic' - that sets out the evidence that Vitamin D deficiency is getting worse in the United States and it gets worse in winter.

Black, white and everybody in between are suffering from more cases - while the Vitamin D in food and milk is lower than it has been for a generation.

From this study, it looks like lack of sunshine in northern climes and worries about skin cancer, particularly in white people, have caused a new and silent problem: childhood rickets.

In New Zealand, Annie Judkins and Carl Eagleton, got worried when they found ten cases of childhood rickets in three years in one GP's practice in Wellington.

They tested 90 pregnant mums for rickets and found that almost nine out of 10 were Vitamin D deficient - and some two thirds had a serious deficiency.

The mums were from a wide spectrum: African, Maori, European, Middle Eastern, and Polynesian.

Shaken Baby Syndrome has powerful defenders in the child protection community, who argue that it is valid science and that perpetrators have confessed to it.

However, it is also the case that no-one independent has ever witnessed a shaking leading to the symptoms - bleeds over the surface of the brain and in the eyes and brain damage - alleged to be found in the syndrome and no-one has ever filmed it.

Erik faces the legal hurdle that his defence relies on new science - rickets plus child birth - and judges like old precedents - SBS.

This is a problem that one of his defence experts, Dr Waney Squier, is familiar with.

The Oxford neuro-pathologist helped clear Suzanne Holdsworth of the false finding of child murder of Kyle Fisher - see my previous blog. (The Independent Police Complaints Commission are now investigating the integrity of the first Cleveland Police investigation into Holdsworth's conviction.)

Dr Squier, a sceptic on Shaken Baby Syndrome, argues that Baby Linnea had just been born - and that if you combine congenital rickets with a difficult birth, then bleeds in the eye and over the surface of the brain are natural events, not child abuse.

The Swedish judges have thus far dismissed the evidence from around the world that suggests that Erik might never have harmed his little girl at all. The matter now goes to final appeal.

The problem is that if Eric is innocent but goes to prison because of questionable science, then it is likely that many more children in Sweden and elsewhere, including Britain, will suffer from rickets - a wholly preventable disease - while the food and milk manufacturers are under no pressure to boost the level of Vitamin D.

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