Case against ‘murdering’ mother collapses

Carol Matthey, accused of killing her four small children, free after judge rules prosecution evidence inadmissible

CAROL Matthey entered the Supreme Court yesterday charged with murdering her four small children, one by one, over five years.
Police said she deliberately suffocated them, partly in order to sustain her troubled relationship with her husband, Stephen Matthey, the children’s father.
But yesterday, the criminal case against Mrs Matthey, who has always denied she harmed her children, collapsed.
Fifteen minutes after she arrived, Mrs Matthey left the court free, cheerfully accepting congratulations. In an extraordinary end to one of the most dramatic cases in Victorian legal history, prosecutors dropped the charges because much of the evidence gathered against her was ruled inadmissible.
A case that involved a three-year police investigation, thousands of pages of statements and 160 witnesses – and a case that dominated four years of Carol Matthey’s life – was suddenly over before it reached trial.
After she left the court, Mrs Matthey walked along William Street smiling, declining to answer reporters’ questions until this one: “Are you not guilty, Carol?”
“No,” she said firmly.
The reporter pointed out the double negative and asked for clarification. Did she mean she was innocent? “Yes,” she said, chuckling, amused at the misunderstanding. Then she walked off the public stage and into the rest of her life.
The Supreme Court case against Mrs Matthey ended as a result of pre-trial hearings before Justice John Coldrey. In a complex 94-page judgement on October 12, he found most of the proposed evidence inadmissible under the law.
The defence applied for the prosecution to drop the case on the basis there was no reasonable prospect of conviction. Prosecutor Ray Elston, SC, yesterday announced the case would not proceed.
In legal terms, this is not an acquittal. A defendant against whom charges are withdrawn is not protected by double jeopardy and, theoretically, faces the prospect of another trial if new evidence emerges.
Mrs Matthey, 27, of Geelong, lost four children between 1998 and 2003. Jacob was seven months old, Chloe nine weeks old, Joshua three months and Shania three years and four months.
At her committal hearing in March 2006, Mrs Matthey’s defence argued there was no physical evidence of harm done to any of the children. Her lawyers said it was possible the children shared an as-yet-undiscovered gene that caused a medical condition, such as a fatal cardiac arrhythmia, that led to their deaths.
Police yesterday declined to comment. The acting director of public prosecutions, Jeremy Rapke, QC, said the case was irreparably damaged when the judge deemed inadmissible much of the medical evidence.
Initially, Jacob and Chloe Matthey were found to have died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and Joshua of klebsiella septicaemia.
A police investigation began after the death of Shania, who was too old to have died of SIDS, and for whom no cause of death could be found.
At the committal hearing, experts acknowledged SIDS was a “diagnosis of exclusion” – the cause of death used for babies when no other cause can be found. They said there were often no forensic clues that would differentiate natural SIDS from deliberate suffocation.
This left much of the expert medical evidence at the committal heated and contradictory. Four local forensic pathologists strongly argued the autopsies revealed no scientific evidence of harm to any of the children.
But a pediatrician from South Australia who specialised in SIDS, Dr Susan Beal, and a forensic pediatric pathologist from the US, Dr Janice Ophoven, were equally vehement homicide was the most likely explanation.
They argued that “scientific” evidence included the lack of risk factors for SIDS in some of the children; the rarity of four such deaths in one family; the troubled marriage; and the fact that the children had experienced “ALTEs” – apparent life-threatening episodes in which they stopped breathing or were found unconscious.
Dr Beal said: “ALTEs are not a predictor for SIDS; they’re a predictor for (homicide).”
Justice Coldrey ruled out most of the evidence of these two witnesses.
The conflict between the experts meant the Crown case relied on other evidence, such as Mrs Matthey’s relationship with her husband and children.
Justice Coldrey said the Crown had submitted that, particularly at times of ALTEs or deaths among the children, the marriage was under severe strain.
“Moreover, it is asserted that the relationship of Mrs Matthey to her children, evinced by unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, mediocre parenting and indifference to their deaths, would enable a jury to infer they were the unfortunate pawns in this strategy to bolster her marital situation,” he wrote.
Justice Coldrey found there was no discernible link between the timing of marital crises and the ALTEs or the deaths: “There is no foundation for the contention that the killings were designed to win back Stephen Matthey’s love and affection.”
While there was evidence of poor mothering, the judge wrote, other reports painted a picture of a woman “who was a concerned, caring and loving mother during the children’s lives, and a distressed and grieving one when they died”.
Mrs Matthey’s lawyer, Paul Lacava, SC, said there were no winners in the case.
“Mrs Matthey and her husband have lost their children and their sadness is profound and ongoing.
“The only winner is the justice system itself.”
3-5-98 to 8-12-98
Found by his mother lying in his cot and not breathing.
Autopsy result: Died from SIDS.
CHLOE 4-9-2000 to 27-11-2000
Found by her mother in her cot not breathing.
Autopsy result: Died from SIDS.
JOSHUA 30-5-2002 to 10-7-2002
Found by his mother limp and not breathing in his pram in a shopping centre car park, while being treated for an ear infection.
Autopsy result: Died from klebsiella septicemia.
SHANIA 18-11-99 to 9-4-2003
Ambulance called the night before her death by her mother, who said Shania had stopped breathing after she fell off a coffee table. When paramedics arrived, they found Shania breathing and conscious. Next morning, her mother found her in bed not breathing.
Autopsy result: cause of death “unascertained”.

First published in The Age.