There is nothing that seems more unnatural than a parent killing their own child. While, sadly, this occurrence is far from uncommon, the emotive reaction we have to the death of a child has led to the imprisonment and even execution of parents who had nothing to do with their child’s death. In some cases, the real perpetrator was left at large, in others death from natural causes was thought to be a murder. For each of these parents, their fathomless grief was compounded by their false conviction.
10. Timothy Evans
Timothy Evans and his wife, Beryl, often quarreled, and when Beryl found that she was pregnant for the second time, they both agreed that she should have an abortion. In 1949 this was illegal in the UK, so they took up the offer of a downstairs neighbor to assist them. What they didn’t know was that the neighbor, John Christie, was a serial killer. Christie murdered Timothy Evans’ wife and baby daughter, but the police did not believe Evans’ story, and missed the bones of Christie’s previous victims when they searched the grounds. Fabricated confessions and other police misconduct led to Evans’ conviction for the murder of his daughter and his execution by hanging in 1950. In 1953, the bodies of Christie’s victims were discovered and he was hanged that same year. Finally, a 1966 inquiry cleared Evans of the murder of his daughter and he was granted a posthumous pardon. Cold comfort to a dead man, but his case contributed to the movement that abolished the death penalty in Britain.
9. Lynn DeJac
Lynn DeJac entered the history books as the first woman to have a murder conviction overturned due to DNA evidence. In 1994 the Buffalo, NY resident was convicted of murdering her daughter the previous year, based on little more than the now-recanted testimony of a neighbor, who said that DeJac had confessed to the crime. In 2007, her conviction was quashed as DNA evidence linked her partner at the time, Dennis Donohue, to the murder. Then, in 2008, it emerged that the original medical report had been wrong: the thirteen-year-old girl did not die from strangulation, but from a cocaine overdose.
8. Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson spent three years in prison, from 1915 to 1918, for the murder of his wife, Jenny, and their daughter. Strangely, they were in fact alive and well in Indiana. When, in 1912, a man and his son found bones buried beside the Warrior River in Alabama, locals began to speculate that they were the remains of Wilson’s wife and baby, who had disappeared four years earlier after a divorce. Despite the fact that the bones were clearly more than five years old, the child’s skull had the teeth of an older child, and several witnesses testified to seeing Jenny after the time, the prosecution maintained she had been murdered, Wilson was sentenced to life. In 1918, Wilson’s lawyer found Jenny and her child and persuaded them to return to the area to verify that they were not, in fact, dead. When she confirmed her identity, Wilson was granted a pardon.
7. Julie Rea Harper
Julie Rea Harper woke one night in 1997 to the sound of her son screaming, ran to his room, struggled with a masked intruder and then found that her ten-year-old son had been stabbed to death. As there was no sign of forced entry to her home,
in the small town of Lawrenceville, IL, she was tried in 2000 and sentenced to 65 years in prison for the murder of her own child. Four years later she was released on technical grounds, only to be arrested and tried for the murder again. This time, however, her defense was armed with the confession of serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells, whom Harper had been rude to in a grocery store on the same day her son was slain. In 2006, she was finally acquitted of her son's murder.
6. Sveinung Rødseth
The daughter of Norwegian man Sveinung Rødseth died when she was just five months old. The autopsy found that she had a broken leg and various bruises on her tiny body. Her father, 19 at the time, was arrested, confessed, and was initially sentenced to prison for over two years, before being released on parole, having had his penalty reduced. Rødseth maintained that his conviction had been coerced out of him, and it later emerged that his daughter had suffered from a disease that could explain her injuries. Three hundred thousand people signed a petition to have his case re-opened, and in 1997, 16 years after his trial, Rødseth's conviction was overturned.
5. Tammy Marquardt
Toronto mother Tammy Marquardt’s two-year-old son died in 1993. Two years later, she was convicted of murdering him by smothering or strangulation due to the testimony of pathologist Charles Smith, who maintained that the boy’s epilepsy could not have caused his death. In 2009, after almost 14 years in jail (and having had her two other children taken from her), Marquardt was released on bail following a public inquiry that found serious flaws in Smith’s findings in numerous cases. Her conviction was overturned in 2011.
4. Jean Calas
Back in the 1760s, France was a Catholic country that was none-too-friendly to Protestants. Jean Calas, a Protestant merchant, was accused of killing his son in 1761. The supposed motive? That his son intended to become a Catholic. The family at first claimed there had been an unknown murderer, then confessed that they had found him after he hanged himself and attempted to make it look like a murder to avoid the severe stigma placed on suicide at the time. However, in 1762 Calas was convicted of murder, despite protesting his innocence. The famous writer, Voltaire, took an interest in the case, and by 1765 succeeded in clearing Calas of all charges. Of course, this was mostly symbolic as Calas had been tortured to death on the breaking wheel in 1762, shortly after his conviction.
3. Sally Clark
To lose one of your children is traumatizing enough, so imagine losing two and being held responsible for their murders. British solicitor Sally Clark was convicted of murdering her sons Harry and Christopher in a 1999 trial, with her conviction based entirely on the testimony of pathologist Alan Williams and pediatrician Professor Sir Roy Meadow. Williams hid evidence that pointed to death by natural causes, and Meadow misused statistics to make it seem as if the chances of natural causes for the two deaths was “1 in 73 million” (when in fact, after one cot death in a family, the chances of a second significantly increase). When this evidence came to light, Clark's conviction was eventually successfully overturned, and she was released in 2003. However, the trauma was too much for her and she turned to drink, dying of alcohol poisoning in 2007.
2. Angela Cannings
Pediatrician Sir Roy Meadow regularly testified in child death cases, and Sally Clark was not the only woman whose life he ruined by contributing to a wrongful conviction. Angela Cannings had three children die at the age of between seven and 18 weeks old, and after Meadow testified to the statistical unlikelihood of their deaths being natural, in 2002 she was convicted for the murder of her two sons — one in 1991 and the other in 1999. The BBC found that her family had a long history of sudden infant death syndrome, and her conviction was overturned in 2003. After her conviction, Cannings' marriage dissolved, her relationship with her surviving daughter was heavily strained, and she was harassed by a former prison inmate. In 2005, Meadow was banned from practicing medicine due to professional misconduct, but later reinstated after an appeal.
1. Lindy and Michael Chamberlain
In the summer of 1980, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain took their two-month-old daughter, Azaria, and their two other children to Uluru in their native Australia. In the middle of the night, a dingo entered their tent and carried off Azaria, who was never to be seen again. The trial — which was based on forensic evidence — concluded in 1982, with Lindy convicted of the murder of her daughter and sentenced to life and her husband convicted as an accessory to murder. In 1986, a piece of Azaria’s clothing was found half-buried beside a dingo lair, corroborating Lindy’s story. Five days later she was released from prison, and in 1988 her conviction was overturned.