English case paves way for woman to appeal salt death-bid conviction

FOR more than six years, Susan Hamilton has lived with the stigma of child abuse. She is ostracised by neighbours, who vividly recall the day in 2000 when she was first accused of attempting to murder a girl aged eight.

Despite daily taunts and recriminations, she maintains her innocence and refuses to move from her home in Sighthill, Edinburgh.

But now she has been given real hope that she can prove her innocence. An expert involved in clearing a woman in England of murdering her child by salt poisoning sees remarkable similarities with Mrs Hamilton's case - and has called for an inquiry.

The key could be a drug called Domperidone, which Mrs Hamilton, 42, claims was prescribed to the child - and could have caused the high salt levels. The drug is the subject of a medical review because of possible links with high sodium levels.

For many in the community, Mrs Hamilton's name is synonymous with evil, and she will always be known as the woman jailed for poisoning a sick and defenceless little girl with huge doses of salt. But being spat on or jeered at by passers-by is nothing new to the mother of two, who she says she has nothing to hide.

"I'll keep fighting because I'm innocent and the people that are closest to me, my family and friends, have all stood by me, because they know I didn't do it," she said.

"My lawyers kept telling me to plead guilty and they'd spare me a jail sentence, but how on earth could you plead guilty to a crime you didn't commit? It's been three years of absolute hell, but I know we'll be proved right in the end."

At the time of her arrest, Lothian and Borders Police believed she was suffering from Munchausen's syndrome by proxy - a largely discredited condition which causes people to harm children in order to draw attention to themselves.

In March 2000, the child was admitted to Edinburgh's Royal Hospital for Sick Children suffering from a level of sodium described by Thomas Marshall, a consultant paediatrician, as among the highest he had even seen. He concluded the girl had been "deliberately poisoned" with salt and police were called in.

Mrs Hamilton was arrested and charged in September 2000, but it was an agonising three and a half years before the case came to court.

After a trial, she was cleared of attempted murder but convicted of assault and leaving the child brain-damaged. She was jailed for four years.

The prosecution claimed she had been able to administer a potentially deadly dose because the youngster, who was fed through a tube directly into her stomach, could not taste what she was being given. It was claimed the girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, suffered a stroke after receiving a particularly strong dose and would never fully recover from the salt doses, which were administered over a period of four and a half years.

But campaigners believe Mrs Hamilton is one of a growing number of women in Britain wrongly accused of child abuse and say a review of medical evidence will prove she has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. Within the past month, she has been given new hope after the acquittal of Marianne Williams, 24, from Wiltshire, who was cleared of murdering her 15-month-old son, Joshua, with an overdose of salt.

Joshua, born 12 weeks prematurely in November 2002, had chronic renal problems and found it difficult to retain enough sodium as it flowed through his bloodstream. His tiny kidneys led doctors to prescribe medications high in salt to provide him with appropriate nutrients.

The Hamilton and Williams cases have remarkable similarities and centre around the drug Domperidone. During Mrs Hamilton's trial, the High Court in Edinburgh heard the girl was repeatedly admitted to hospital suffering from high levels of sodium in her blood.

The jury was told she had a history of ill- health, including weakness in her throat muscles which made it hard for her to swallow and hold down food. Mrs Hamilton's supporters insist Domperidone was prescribed by doctors to prevent nausea and vomiting, and that it could have exacerbated the child's illness. They say none of these factors was mentioned in court.

Now a government watchdog is to investigate the drug, amid concerns about its use in the salt-poisoning cases. Painstaking research by Penny Mellor, who runs Dare to Care, a pressure group for parents accused of harming children, has resulted in the drug being reviewed.

"This is a major boost for all the people caught up in these allegations of child abuse," she said. "We have major concerns about Domperidone and how it can cause sodium levels to rise. There are so many similarities between these salt cases."

Ian and Angela Gay, from the West Midlands, were jailed for five years for poisoning their foster son with salt but had a manslaughter conviction overturned this year after the defence team argued the boy had a rare condition and could not regulate salt in his system.

Mrs Hamilton has drawn strength from the Williams case. "I was so pleased when I heard Marianne had been acquitted because I knew exactly what she was going through and I finally began to think I could clear my name," she said.

"It brought back a lot of memories from the day I stood in the dock. Up to the very last minute, I never believed I was going to be convicted. This whole thing has been a living nightmare and I want to be able to clear my name and move on. I only hope that finally people are going to believe I was sent to jail for a crime I didn't commit. To be accused of harming a child is the worst thing that can happen to anyone."

Expert demands inquiry into drug given to sick child

AN INTERNATIONAL expert whose evidence cleared a mother of murdering her baby son is calling for an inquiry into the Susan Hamilton case, writes Tanya Thompson.

Dr Michael Moritz, a professor of paediatrics in the US, was called as an expert witness in the case of Marianne Williams, who last month was cleared of killing her 15-month-old son, Joshua.

The prosecution suggested she had force-fed the baby with the equivalent of three and a half teaspoonfuls of table salt.

Dr Moritz said there are disturbing parallels between the case of Miss Williams and Susan Hamilton, jailed in 2003 for poisoning an eight-year-old girl with salt.

His intervention comes as The Scotsman reveals a government watchdog is to conduct a review of the drug Domperidone - prescribed to the children in both cases.

"I'm keen to talk to the Scottish lawyers to investigate this case," said Dr Moritz.

"If a child has been salt poisoned, you must have a witness. Just because a doctor can't work out how it happened, it doesn't mean the child was deliberately poisoned."

Mrs Hamilton, 42, was initially charged with attempted murder after the youngster suffered serious brain damage following a stroke.

She was sentenced to four years and served two years and eight months after being convicted of assault to the endangerment of life. The court heard the girl, born with serious health problems, was fed through a tube, which allowed Mrs Hamilton to administer solutions containing salt.

But it has emerged that some drugs prescribed to the children had unusually high salt levels - including Domperidone, never approved in the US because it allows salt levels to rise, but used routinely in the UK for gastric problems. A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency confirmed a review of Domperidone will take place.

He said: "The agency will conduct a review. Concerns have been raised by campaigners over the link between Domperidone and high sodium levels."

Mrs Hamilton hopes this will help prove she was not responsible for the child's injuries and Domperidone could be to blame. She said the child was given the drug before meals to combat nausea and vomiting.

Dr Moritz said it was crucial to review the medical evidence to establish whether there had been a miscarriage of justice. Mrs Hamilton said: "It's great to see senior doctors are prepared to listen and look into the case."

Massimo Franchi, Mrs Hamilton's lawyer, said: "We need to investigate Domperidone. The news from the watchdog is a breakthrough. There are clear similarities between the cases which require examination."

Janssen-Cilag, manufacturers of Domperidone and part of the Johnson and Johnson group, declined to comment.

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