CAMPAIGN: Litigation PR - Clark appeal has PR help in murder case

Client: Sally and Stephen Clark (www.sallyclark.org.uk) PR Team: Sue Stapely Campaign: Lightning does Strike Twice Timescale: 2002 - 2003 Budget: All PR and website support offered free of charge

Sally Clark is the solicitor who, on 29 January, walked free from the Court of Appeal in London, having served three years in prison, convicted of murdering her two sons.

In November 1999, Sally Clark was convicted for the murder of 11-week-old Christopher in 1996 and eight-week-old Harry who died two years later. This conviction has now been quashed and the two life sentences handed down overturned.

Sally Clark has always claimed that her children died from natural causes, but evidence presented by the prosecution at her trial convinced a jury otherwise.

Having lost one appeal in 2000, the lawyer's freedom was not easily won.

But those close to her, such as her father Frank Lockyer and her husband Stephen, have always believed in her innocence.

Moreover, Sally's legal team, including her two solicitors - managing partner of Manchester-based Burton Copeland Mike Mackey and consultant to Batt Holden in Wimbledon John Batt - have consistently questioned the integrity of her convictions.

In 2001, suspecting a miscarriage of justice, Sue Stapely, a solicitor and media relations and issues management consultant, and current General Counsel with Quiller Consultants, offered her help pro bono in co-ordinating media interest in Sally's case.

Objectives

Naturally, all activities centred on proving Sally's innocence and securing her freedom.

As the legal team was pushing for an investigation of the case by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, there was a need to change the climate of opinion among the public and the legal profession. In addition, positive publicity was seen as an effective way of garnering support from relevant experts.

Of further concern were the wider ramifications of Sally's wrongful conviction, in particular in relation to the use or misuse of statistics as evidence in court cases and the suspicions that surround mothers whose babies have died in mysterious circumstances.

Strategy and Plan

For 18 months after the trial and without PR support, Sally Clark was widely reviled by the media.

The tide turned, however, in May 2001, when following a failed first appeal, the Solicitors's Disciplinary Tribunal, in an unprecedented and extraordinary move, decided not to strike Sally off the Roll of Solicitors. Instead, having heard her case, the Tribunal moved to suspend her.

Stapely used this event as a launching pad for discussing a potential miscarriage of justice with the professional and quality media.

Investigations of the facts in Sally's case and support from both individual journalists and medical experts were forthcoming shortly after.

In particular, commentators examined the notion that lightning does strike twice in instances of unexplained child mortality.

The validity of the statistic used in Sally's trial - 73 million to one - to indicate the likelihood of two babies dying of natural causes in the same family, was questioned by organisations including the Royal Statistical Society and the New Scientist.

Questions were also asked about the absence of vital medical evidence at the trial, which subsequently indicated that an infection had clearly led to baby Harry's death.

Media pressure mounted until the beginning of July 2002, when the news broke that Sally's case had been sent back to the Court of Appeal. At this point, Sue Stapely put the brakes on all media activity, to ensure that the case was not scuppered by what the Court may have perceived as undue pressure. This silence was maintained until the appeal was heard in January this year.

Measurement and Evaluation

From May 2001 the tone, weight and scale of media interest in Sally's case was unprecedented. In part, this was in response to the Sally Clark website, set up and maintained by Cambridge University academic and statistician David MacKay, free of charge.

Professional media outlets such as Legal Business, New Law Journal and the British Medical Journal all carried editorial on Sally's case, as did the broadsheets, including The Observer, The Sunday Times and The Independent.

Broadcast interest was also widespread, from Women's Hour and the Today programme on Radio 4, which interviewed Sally's husband and father, to Tonight with Trevor MacDonald. In addition, individual journalists such as John Sweeney consistently pushed Sally's cause both on air and in print.

Of equal importance, the media was effectively gagged once the second appeal hearing was announced.

Results

On 29 January, the Court of Appeal decided that Sally had not had a fair trial, and that her convictions were therefore unsafe and must be quashed.

Questions remain about aspects of the trial, including the withholding of vital medical information, which may lead to further legal action.

However, Sally's team of supporters remain convinced that the PR support was pivotal in securing and winning the second appeal.

Stephen Clark claims the weight of publicity encouraged medical experts to come forward, and crucially led to the revelation of a microbiology report clarifying baby Harry's cause of death.

'More importantly, PR changed the climate in the corridors of power,' he told PRWeek.

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