A judge threw out the evidence against Carol Matthey, accused of killing four of her children, this week. But changes to the law mean a case such as this may never happen again in Victoria.
IT WAS a long death notice about a short life. Written as a letter from a mother to her three-year-old daughter, Shania Jayne, it said the child had “passed away peacefully at home” on April 9, 2003.
“Ni, my precious little baby princess, we have been through so much pain and heartache over the past five years, and then it gets worse when you decide to go at only 31/2 years. How could you leave us like this, baby?
“Now, like ‘Spirit’ ” – Shania’s favourite toy horse – “you are free to go and take care of your brothers and sister . . .
“No one will ever understand the pain I am feeling inside. I miss you so much. I don’t know if I can survive without my ‘Barbie girl’ . . . I will never forget all the fun things we used to do together. Just like you, they will remain in my heart forever. Sleep sweet Nia. Love now and forever – Mummy.”
“Mummy” was Carol Louise Matthey, of Geelong. Shania was to “look after” her brothers and sister because they had gone ahead of her – Shania was Matthey’s fourth child to die in five years. Shania’s death was not “peaceful” for long. It led to a media outcry. An exhaustive three-year police investigation led to four charges of murder against Carol Matthey. She always denied she had ever harmed her children, but the Crown claimed she smothered them one by one in attempts to bolster her troubled marriage.
That case burst like a balloon this week, with the pin wielded by Supreme Court Justice John Coldrey. In a 94-page pre-trial judgement, Coldrey threw out most of the proposed evidence against Matthey, saying it was inadmissible in court. Matthey, 27, walked away smiling – and free. The case leaves many legacies: a raft of changes to the law; a review of protocols for police called to infant deaths; and greater public awareness of the discomfiting fact that, while science can put man on the moon, it cannot always tell the difference between babies who die naturally and those who are deliberately smothered.
Investigating police first looked for natural causes that might link the deaths. Detective Sergeant Sol Solomon talked to more than 160 witnesses trying to find an explanation. Cardiac testing of Carol Matthey and her husband Stephen found no defects. Solomon spent six months just investigating the possibility that a genetic problem could have killed them. He flew to the US and had DNA tests done on blood samples from the whole family at one of the world’s leading genetic laboratories. A renowned cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic was also consulted. This all drew a blank too. What did add up for police was evidence that painted Carol Matthey as a young woman struggling in a deeply unhappy marriage who felt ambivalent about, and sometimes hostile towards, her children.
The Crown claimed the first sign of her allegedly “violent relationship” with her children was a fire that began in a child’s bedroom one night in 1998, when Matthey was the only adult in the house. Matthey had also been the only adult present when each of the children died, and when the children previously suffered ALTEs – apparent life-threatening events. Two experts reviewing the evidence strongly argued it pointed to homicide.
Four pathologists from the Victorian Institute for Forensic Medicine just as strongly disagreed. Institute director Professor Stephen Cordner warned against relying on circumstantial evidence. He said the facts were also “perfectly compatible with natural causes of death”.
Defence lawyers at Matthey’s committal argued the children might have shared a congenital defect from a metabolic or cardiac condition that was either difficult to diagnose, or as yet unknown. SIDS has been called “a diagnostic dustbin” and “a diagnosis in search of a disease”. It is given as the cause of death for babies when no other cause can be found. It is believed to cover many unknown disorders, but it can also be applied inadvertently to criminal deaths. One expert witness at the committal estimated between five and 15 per cent of SIDS cases were homicides. A British study by controversial pathologist Sir Roy Meadows described 42 cases of homicide that were misdiagnosed as SIDS.
In Britain, the “three strikes and you’re out” principle has been applied: one infant death was tragic, two were suspicious and three had to be investigated as murder. But international expert Professor Roger Byard of Adelaide University, who gave evidence in a high-profile British case in which a mother’s conviction for killing her two children was overturned, this week told The Age that unusual inherited diseases must always be explored as a possibility. He points to a US case in which a mother was suspected of having poisoned her two babies with anti-freeze. Only after exhaustive testing was it discovered that the children had died from a rare metabolic disorder.
While there are promising developments in the search to differentiate the causes of SIDS, Byard says the syndrome will continue to be a grey area. “Sure, you have concerns, but if you don’t have hard evidence, what do you do?”
You think twice about whether to proceed, according to Justice Coldrey. He threw out most of the Matthey evidence because he thought it unfairly prejudicial to the accused; because it did not prove what the prosecution argued that it proved; or because it involved experts drawing conclusions that were outside their expertise or that were not supported by the facts. He wrote: “The rarity of the phenomenon of four unexpected and seemingly unexplained deaths in one family cannot, of itself, provide a cause of death.” As for the fact that Matthey had been alone with the children during ALTEs and deaths – this was not remarkable given that she was their primary carer, Coldrey wrote. And, while prosecution witnesses might argue that ALTEs are a marker for homicide, the defence could argue they were signs of an underlying disorder.
The known record for mysterious child deaths in one family is nine, Byard says, and involved an American mother who moved interstate several times, which meant her family’s problems were not picked up by health authorities.
Victoria is less likely now to experience a case like that of the Matthey family. In what has become known informally as “the Matthey amendment”, in 2004 former premier Steve Bracks changed the law to make the death of a second or subsequent child in any family reportable to the coroner, who can then refer the matter to the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine for investigation. The new laws over-ride privacy rules and allow agencies, protective services, doctors and hospitals to talk to each other and share information. Previously, it was possible for one organisation or professional to have one part of a family’s story, and for others to know other important facts, without anyone being in a position to put the puzzle together.
Matthey’s lawyer, Paul Lacava, SC, told The Age this week that no individual had “won” in the Matthey case. He said: “The only winner is the justice system itself. There was a thorough investigation and an exhaustive brief of evidence. There was a strong and independent judge, a strong and independent Office of Public Prosecutions, and a good system of legal aid. When it’s all said and done, the system has worked.”
Karen Kissane is law and justice editor. SIDS and Kids bereavement helpline: 1300 308 307
First published in The Age.