A jury decided Gemma O’Donnell did not kill her baby son Leighton. But she is barred from having her own family because she was suspected of killing him. She told MEGI RYCHLIKOVA how the medical diagnosis of how her son died turned her life into an endless nightmare.
GEMMA O’Donnell wants to know what more she can do to clear her name and prove that she is a good mother.
Last March, a jury acquitted her of killing her baby by shaking him to death. There were no bruises on her son’s body, no external marks of rough handling, and no-one said they had seen her hit or shake the child.
But because a post mortem of her son Leighton found three internal head injuries together called “the triad” she was arrested on suspicion of murder and charged with manslaughter.
She said that she has been told by social services that if she has another child it will be taken from her at birth, and she believes that she can’t work with children because a criminal records’ check would tell a prospective employer about her manslaughter trial.
“I haven’t done anything,” she said.
“I have been proved innocent.”
When she was growing up, Gemma, now 28, dreamt of being a mother rather than having a successful career in the workplace.
“That is all I ever wanted, from when I was little, to be a mother. All I wanted was children.”
When Leighton was born in Manchester on July 14, 2010, she couldn’t have been happier, even though Leighton was 13 weeks’ premature and spent the first three months of his life in a special care baby unit. He was continuously on oxygen throughout his life. When he died, aged 20 weeks, he was similar to a six-week-old baby born at full term.
“He was always very special,” she said. “He was a happy baby. He was good, he slept through. To me he was perfect, everything I wanted.”
Mother and baby spent two weeks in hospital in Manchester before Leighton was transferred to York Hospital. Gemma visited him daily, feeding him and learning how to handle the machines and other medical equipment he needed.
Like all very premature babies, Leighton wasn’t fully developed and had various problems, including bleeding behind theeyes. This was to become significant later, because one of the triad injuries is bleeding on the retina. It was October 12 when she took him home for the first time to Bright Street off Leeman Road, York.
“I had got to know him as a person.
I was not apprehensive because he had been in hospital where I had been taught to look after him,” she said. That included ensuring that he was constantly on an oxygen ventilator via a tube that ran throughout the house.
She remained in regular contact with the hospital as Leighton continued to need medical treatment and was scheduled for planned surgery shortly before he died. He also had brief stays in hospital for various reasons before, on November 26, he collapsed at home and was taken by ambulance first to York Hospital and then Leeds General Infirmary.
“All I wanted to do was hold him close. I felt helpless. I couldn’t do anything. I felt lost. I couldn’t take his pain away, I couldn’t help, but I was his mum,” she said.
Leighton died on December 4. It was many days before Gemma could accept his death. “I thought, it isn’t real. Waking up on a morning and not having things to do for him, I was just heartbroken. Just seeing his things made me think in my head he wasn’t gone, and he was coming back.”
She was still struggling to accept her loss when, three days after Leighton died, she was arrested on suspicion of murdering him.
A post mortem had discovered “the triad” that according to widely accepted medical opinion cannot occur together by accident and indicate a baby has been shaken.
Leighton didn’t have any bruises or external marks of manhandling, But the presence of the triad was enough to start the nightmare that, for Gemma, continues to this day.
“It was difficult because I was still trying to adjust myself to the fact that he had gone. Not being able to have the funeral, that was the hardest. I wouldn’t say I coped very well.”
Leighton’s body remained in a hospital morgue throughout the 27- month investigation that only ended with her acquittal. It wasn’t until April 19, 2013, nearly two and a half years after his death, that Gemma finally held her son’s funeral.
It took the police and the Crown Prosecution Service 18 months to decide whether or not to charge her. Throughout that time, Gemma was on police bail, having to return to the police station every couple of months or so.
In all, she answered bail ten times. She was only interviewed on three occasions including on her initial arrest. On the other occasions she was told to come back again in a few weeks time.
While she waited, the police interviewed her family and friends as potential prosecution witnesses against her. Even though her family stood by her, it meant they couldn’t talk about Leighton.
“I had to bottle everything up and just keep it to myself,” she said.
Some friends, hearing about the police investigation, broke off contact or distanced themselves. At one point, the stress of those 18 months drove her to try to kill herself with a paracetamol overdose. “I just got to a stage where I just wanted to be with him. I ended up in hospital.
“That someone could think I would harm him in any way, it absolutely killed me inside. I wanted to stand up and say you didn’t see me with him. You don’t understand how much love I had for him. It was horrible.”
She was finally charged on June 20, 2012, with manslaughter. The prosecution accepted that she had never intended to kill Leighton – she stood trial accused of handling him too roughly in a fit of frustration.
With the first court appearance came publicity and local notoriety.
“I found it very hard to go out. I became isolated at home. Other people had seen the paper. They didn’t know what had happened. I thought people would judge me.”
Before the trial she got messages through Facebook and threats that she would be run over. She told police about them and had a panic alarm installed in her house. Nothing happened and she believes police warned the threateners off.
Her trial began on February 25, 2013, in front of a High Court judge at Leeds Crown Court. “I was absolutely terrified at times. It didn’t seem real. It was like I was there watching someone else’s trial.
It was just surreal. My family, they were all absolutely amazing. They were in contact every day and there at the end.”
She is full of praise for her legal team, headed by Robert Smith QC, with barrister Chris Tehrani, and solicitor Colin Byrne, all experts on “baby shaking” cases, who took time to answer the many questions she had. In the months awaiting trial, she read the voluminous documents in the case including all the medical reports, and now is as familiar as a medical student with terms such as subdural haemorrhage or bleeding between the skull and the brain (one of the triad injuries).
The majority of medical opinion says that the triad cannot be caused accidentally, but not all doctors agree. At trial, doctors called by the defence presented explanations for each of the three injuries that did not involve baby shaking. On March 27, 2013, the jury acquitted her unanimously and she broke down in tears in the dock with relief. “It took a few days to sort of sink in, that it is over, the trial is over,” she said.
But it wasn’t. She hoped her acquittal would mean she could finally achieve her lifelong dream of having her own family.
But now social services have told her they don’t regard her as a suitable mother and they have the backing of a civil court against her opposition.
“It isn’t fair. I haven’t done anything.
There had never been any concern. Social services were never involved (before Leighton’s death).
They never had any reason to be involved with me apart from the evidence in the criminal case.
There was nothing. I have been proved innocent,” she said.
“Social services have also told me if I were to have any more children, I would lose them,” she said, adding that she is also unable to work with children because a Criminal Records Bureau check would reveal her manslaughter case. “I sometimes feel I might as well have been given a life sentence.
“I just want to say to them, give me a day when I can prove I can look after a child. They won’t give me an opportunity to prove I am not a danger to children. I am not.”
But she has, finally, said goodbye to her son. She turned the service at York Crematorium into a celebration of his life and their time together, but it was still a difficult day for her.
“It is a day I will always remember in my head. I remember the entire service,” she said. “He was finally given that.”
Now she is trying to get back to a “normal life”, one in which she cannot achieve her lifelong dream to bring up a family of her own.
Eoin Rush, Assistant Director of Children's Specialist Services said: “City of York Council has a duty, like all local authorities, to undertake an assessment, in conjunction with police , health and other relevant agencies, wherever there are concerns for a child’s safety.
However, it is a matter for the court to decide whether or not a child remains with its parents.
Wherever a court is asked to decide on the future care arrangements for a child, a Children’s Guardian, independent from the local authority, is appointed to advise the court what is in the child’s best interests. Every situation is unique and assessed as such by the courts.”
‘Flee the country’ - MP
AN MP has claimed that parents suspected of child abuse should flee the country rather than go through the family courts.
Liberal Democrat John Hemming, chairman of the Justice For Families campaign group, told the BBC’s Panorama programme last night that parents should “go abroad”, if it is legal.
He claimed: “All the cards are held by the local authority. It has large resources to fight the cases – it does all the assessments.”
His comments came as it emerged that in 2012, local authorities made a record 10,218 applications to take children away from parents.
The courts advisory service, Cafcass, said going abroad did not solve the problem for most parents, while the Government said family justice reform was a “critical priority.”