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The pathologist for the prosecution in the Sally Clark murder case, who failed to disclose results of microbiological tests on her second baby, has won an appeal against his removal from the UK Home Office register of forensic pathologists.
An appeal panel of three people, headed by a retired appeal court judge, Sir Paul Kennedy, held that the ruling by a home office disciplinary tribunal in 2005 removing Alan Williams from the register was “unreasonable” (BMJ 2005;331:1355 doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7529.1355-a).
He was “a competent pathologist who made one serious error which he is unlikely to repeat,” said the panel, which substituted an 18 month suspension.
Because the suspension period has now expired, Dr Williams's accreditation is now restored. But he is unlikely to be offered prosecution work because he will always be vulnerable to cross examination by the defence, said the panel.
In June 2005 the General Medical Council also barred him from undertaking Home Office pathology work or coroners' cases for three years, although he was allowed to continue as a consultant histopathologist at Macclesfield General Hospital.
His appeal against the GMC's finding of serious professional misconduct is expected to be heard by the High Court next month.
Mrs Clark was convicted in 1999 of killing her babies, Christopher and Harry, but cleared on a second appeal in 2003 after it emerged that the results of microbiological tests on body samples from Harry had not been disclosed in Dr Williams's post mortem report. The samples showed the presence of Staphylococcus aureus in several body sites, including the cerebrospinal fluid.
The appeal panel said that Dr Williams had never sought to hide the results and from time to time made passing references to them, which could have been followed up by those astute enough to do so. “But he never highlighted them because in his view they provided no explanation for Harry's death, and he did not envisage that any similarly qualified expert would take a different view,” it said.
Several experts later said that S aureus was a postmortem contaminant, although an expert for the defence at the second appeal thought infection was the likely cause of death.
The appeal panel said that it had no doubt that the disciplinary tribunal was right to conclude that Dr Williams had made a serious error, which should not have been made by a reasonably competent and experienced Home Office pathologist in 1998.
But Dr Williams was entitled to invite attention to his good record and the many testimonials from those who knew and worked with him, it added.
Mrs Clark died last March. A report by two pathologists, who carried out the post mortem, is still awaited.