The ‘Mary Poppins’ jailed for life for a child murder she didn’t commit… and saved by the love of a man who never stopped believing in her innocence
By Angela Levin
The solicitors and barristers barely glanced at the somewhat overweight man hovering at the entrance to Leeds Crown Court.
With his casual clothes and shaven head, he clearly wasn’t a legal professional.
Possibly the lawyers passing by that grey morning thought he looked likelier to be one of those due to appear in the dock.
Few accepted one of the photocopied documents he was trying to hand out.
Of the handful who did, not many bothered to read it, but anyone who made the effort would have quickly revised their opinion of its author.
Lee Spencer, a lorry driver who left school at 16, was a man with a mission.
His long-term partner Suzanne Holdsworth had been convicted of murdering Kyle Fisher, a two-year-old she had been babysitting in her home in Hartlepool.
Tragic death: Suzanne was wrongly jailed for killing Kyle Fisher
It was a terrible miscarriage of justice: an Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) report published last week says Cleveland Police should consider apologising to Suzanne over the case.
At the trial in Teeside Crown Court in 2005, the prosecution portrayed her as a lying, callous, manipulative woman who killed Kyle in a fit of rage. She was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Lee did not recognise the woman described by the prosecution. He knew that the woman he had loved for nearly 20 years, the mother of their daughter Jamieleigh, now 17, and, Lesley, 22, her daughter from a previous relationship – was not a murderer.
Flatly refusing to accept his own lawyers’ advice that there were no grounds for appeal, he made up his mind that he would prove Suzanne’s innocence.
‘I went to Leeds Crown Court with sheets of A4 paper outlining Suzanne’s charge, conviction and the problems with the case,’ he explains.
‘I printed dozens of copies to hand out to anyone in a wig. I was desperate for someone to listen to my story. I didn’t get anywhere, but I vowed that I would never give up and that the harder it got, the more I would fight.’
A neutral observer assessing Lee’s chances against the legal and medical establishments would have said they were slim.
He couldn’t expect any help from the police, who appeared to think this an open-and-shut case. Suzanne’s own legal team had proved less than effective.
Lee didn’t know the first thing about neuropathology or the law. Indeed, he hadn’t had much in the way of formal education at all.
But he did know right from wrong and wasn’t prepared to let an injustice stand.
Undaunted by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, he began to devote every spare moment to reading up on brain science and legal procedure.
With extraordinary determination and tenacity, Lee trawled the internet and spoke to specialists round the world until he found medical and legal experts who viewed the case in a totally different light.
After a successful appeal, Suzanne, who had spent three horrendous years in the ‘lifers’ wing of HMP Low Newton in County Durham, was cleared at a retrial in December 2008.
Lee’s friends and family see him as a hero.
‘I don’t understand it,Anyone would do the same.’ he says modestly, as we talk in the family’s immaculately clean two bedroom council house in a Leeds suburb. ’
Suzanne looks at Lee lovingly and whispers: ‘I owe my life to him.’
Nor did Lee rest after Suzanne’s release. Outraged by how both the original defence team and Cleveland Police had handled the case, he demanded an explanation.
In January 2009, Lee was promised an investigation by the IPCC. He drew up a list of 27 questions he wanted answering.
The report was finally published last Tuesday. The IPCC commissioner Nicholas Long said that the IPCC could not force Cleveland Police to apologise ‘but I believe it is the right thing to do’.
To say Lee is angry and disappointed is an understatement.
‘The whole thing has been a waste of time and taxpayers’ money,’ he says. ‘They have sugar-coated every mistake and written in circles round
everything. No one accepts blame.
There are no suggestions for changes or overall conclusions.’ As far as he is concerned, the matter is not over.
Lee, 40, and Suzanne, 41, first met in 1990. Suzanne was friendly with his brother.
When they bumped into each other at a bus stop, Lee asked her out for dinner and they have been devoted to each other ever since.
The relationship was quickly established as traditional and rather old-fashioned, even though they have not married.
‘I was in charge and the family bread-winner,’ Lee says. ‘When the children were small I’d be away all week driving across Europe.
Suzanne, who worked in a supermarket, was responsible for the home and the children.’
The events leading up to Suzanne’s wrongful imprisonment began in July 2004.
Every weekday for a year, toddler Kyle Fisher, whom Suzanne had known since birth, had arrived at her house in Hartlepool to play.
He was one of a band of little ones who gravitated to her – Suzanne’s friends even nicknamed her ‘Mary Poppins’.
‘I liked having an open house and there was always someone for Kyle to play with,’ Suzanne says.
‘He was bright, very funny and I loved him to bits’.
His 19-year-old single mum Clare, a friend and neighbour, was struggling to cope and Lee and I had even begun talking about adopting him.’
In the subsequent trial it emerged that Clare was a negligent mother.
Suzanne was babysitting Kyle on the evening of July 21 when he suddenly went ‘all floppy’.
She immediately called an ambulance and is recorded saying: ‘He’s not breathing, his eyes are rolling and everything.’
It is a classic description of an epileptic fit.
Kyle was rushed to hospital, where he was well-known to doctors, having been taken there several times already during his short life, suffering from head injuries sustained while in the care of his mother.
This time his brain was badly swollen. Doctors strove to save him but he died two days later.
Suzanne was charged with his murder. When the ‘guilty’ verdict was announced, she collapsed in shock.
‘I didn’t think I would go to jail because I had done nothing wrong,’ she explains simply.
‘I didn’t speak to anyone in my first week there, they put me on suicide watch, under constant supervision by a staff member.
‘I was so traumatised that it took me months to fully realise I was in jail for the rest of my life. I sat on a chair in the corner of my prison-hospital cell and rocked backwards and forwards crying for Lee and the children.’
S]he simply could not face it and decided to take her own lif.
suddenly said, “If you had killed yourself Mum I would have had to kill myself too, so I could still be with you.”
‘I thought to myself, “What are you doing?” The moment I got back to my cell, I handed over my entire store of tablets to a nurse.’
She is racked by sobs again: Lee and Jamieleigh reach over the dining room table to hold her hand.
The trial had centred on medical evidence from a now deceased Home Office forensic pathologist, Dr James Sunter, who said Kyle had died from repeated blows to the brain.
This happened, said the prosecution, when Suzanne repeatedly smashed Kyle’s head against a wooden bannister with a force equal to that of a 60mph car crash.
Oddly, the defence made nothing of the fact that the bannister was left intact and unmarked by any hair, tissue or blood.
Because neither the police, pathologist or defence team looked properly at Kyle’s medical history, the jury did not know he had suffered an eye injury a year before he died which had caused major brain damage and was nothing to do with Suzanne.
Nor did the jury hear that two surgeons examined him six months before his death, planned to operate on the brain injury and recorded their concerns in medical notes.
The brain damage could have caused Kyle to have a fatal fit.
Dr Waney Squier, the most experienced paediatric neuropathologist in Britain, gave evidence in the retrial.
He says: ‘This case needed to be handled by lawyers who understood the issues. Unfortunately, sometimes lawyers take on cases they do not understand.
‘It is like going to a GP with a rare disease but having him deal with it himself rather than giving a referral to a specialist.’
But Lee unearthed medical research to shed fresh light on Kyle’s death.
He took his findings to a number of lawyers until he found solicitor Campbell Malone, who told him it constituted grounds for an appeal.
Appeal Court Judges Lord Justice Toulson, Mr Justice Aikens and Judge Michael Baker ruled the conviction unsafe.
A retrial was ordered, at which new neuropathologists, Dr Squier of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and John Plunkett, forensic pathologist at Regina Medical Centre in Minnesota, USA – gave evidence that it was more than likely that Kyle had died from a massive epileptic fit due to a previous brain injury.
In addition, William Dobyns, professor of genetics, neurology and pathology at the University of Chicago, gave evidence that Kyle had at least five abnormalities of the brain.
In December 2008, the jury unanimously found Suzanne not guilty. She was released immediately.
Dr Squier says now: ‘When I examined Kyle’s brain I noted several congenital abnormalities, including some that may cause epilepsy.
‘He also had an old fracture to the roof of his eye socket. Part of his brain was pushing down into it, pushing the eye forward.
‘In addition, he had bruising from apparently falling out of bed the night before his collapse while in the care of his mother.
‘In this latter kind of head injury the brain can take up to 72 hours to swell. Thus it is possible for a child to have what is known as a lucid interval, between the injury occurring and collapsing, when the child seems fine.
‘My judgement is that what happened to Kyle was almost certainly a substantial fatal seizure.
‘He would have died as a result of these injuries in anyone’s care. It just happened to be Suzanne’s.
‘In this case the assumption that the last one holding the baby is guilty led to a failure to consider all the relevant details.
‘If the lucid interval had been recognised, a proper investigation could have been undertaken to examine all possible causes, accidental or not.’
Suzanne’s scars are deep.
No innocent person can come out of jail after being labelled a child murderer and seamlessly pick up their life.
‘I spend most of my days cleaning,’ she says. ‘It stops me from thinking.’
She rarely goes out and in a way her home has replaced her cell.
‘I have to have the front door locked all the time even when I am home. It is the only place I feel safe and where no one can get me.
‘Before 2004, I was a bubbly, lively person. Now, if I see a policeman when I am out I get really nervous.
‘My world has shrunk. I no longer want to see friends and don’t trust anyone. I am best with just the three of us here at home.
‘When I first came home I was very jealous of the relationship Lee had built up with my daughters and felt those years had been stolen from me.
‘It was difficult for Jamieleigh and, after a year, we were having terrible arguments all the time.’
‘We are fine now, Mum,’ her daughter interrupts as she again reaches for her mother’s hand. Jamieleigh, now 17, despite being deeply affected by her mother’s imprisonment, managed to achieve a remarkable 15 GCSEs.
She is about to join the Royal Military Police.
Lesley, Suzanne’s other daughter, lives nearby with her boyfriend and their two children.
How does Suzanne see her future?
‘I feel at least 20 years older than my 41 years,’ she says with a rueful smile.
‘The police took me away from my family for something I didn’t do and they won’t even admit they have done something wrong. I haven’t even had an apology.’
Lee plans to fight on to secure one: it is surely the very least this brave couple can expect.
Given Lee’s single-minded resolve in pursuit of justice for Suzanne, he must have every chance of success.