by Tara Hebbar
Sentenced to 40 years in prison was Kathleen Folbigg, for smothering her 4 children before any of them reached the age of 2. She was deemed the “worst female serial killer” by the Australian Tabloids and convicted by the Australian Judicial System in 2003 . All through the past 18 years, she has pleaded innocence, claiming all children passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, a death of an infant in their sleep, who was seemingly healthy. Now, in 2021, over 90 scientists have come to her defence, and “proved” her claims and petitioned for her release, claiming it a “miscarrige of justice.” This group of scientists include 2 Nobel laureates. This is a story of medicine, versus a system that very rarely overturns convictions and a competition of diary entries and genetic mutations. What really is the story of Kathleen Folbigg and the mysterious deaths of her children?
Now 53 years of age, Kathleen Folbigg has maintained a plea for innocence, 30 years since the death of her firstborn. However, Kathleen Folbigg’s story begins at the age of her being 18 months old. At this age, in 1968, Kathleen’s mother was stabbed on a public footpath by her father who was in a drunken rage over her mothers walking out over a financial dispute. In her diary 28 years later, she entered, “Obviously, I am my father’s daughter.” At this time, she was married and settled. Caleb, her first child died at 19 days of age, and was classified death due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Her second born, Patrick, born blind, died at 8 months of age, in accordance to his death certificate due to a fit of epilepsy and choking. Her third, Sarah, met the same fate at 10 months of age, also due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Her last child, Laura, passed away at 18 months of age, the cause being “undetermined” at the time of her death. These subsequent deaths, of similar causes were sure to raise questions.
At first glance, this all seemed to be a coincidental tragedy, however, subsequent to reading a diary entry by Kathleen, that said, “Sarah had left with a bit of help,” Kathleen Folbigg was turned into the police by her husband. In her defence, Mrs. Folbigg claimed that the “help” referred to her hope that God had taken Sarah away from the world. At her court case, the same doctor who let Laura’s cause of death as undetermined, was an expert witness, when he said that flying pigs were more likely than 4 young babies dying in the same family in a span of 10 years. This however, was not backed with any proof or evidence at the time. When she was accused and covicted of the murder of her 4 children, she collapsed into tears.
Several years later, science is coming to her rescue, with more than 90 scientists claiming that what Kathleen Folbigg was saying many years ago, was indeed true. Even when convicted, there was no evidence of smothering, and this was mentioned in the petition of the scientists. They additionally claimed that none of the children were in the pink of health prior to their death. Laura, the 4th child, had respiratory difficulties and was found to have an inflamed heart in the autopsy following her death. Kathleen Folbigg’s lawyers consulted several scientists and asked them to investigate a mutation that might have resulted in the events that took place. Two scientists, by the names of Carola Vinuesa and Dr. Todor Arsov, agreed to sequence Kathleen Folbigg’s genome, with her consent. What they both found was that Kathleen Folbigg had a rare genetic mutation in the CALM2 gene. Any defect in any 3 of the CALM genes can lead to Sudden Deaths in infant and cardiac arrests. The mutation is observed in only 75 people, worldwide. This includes some parents, who don’t exhibit any symptoms, their children, however, died in most cases, most commonly of heart attacks. This is enhanced with the presence of a drug called pseudoephedrine, a drug for colds and coughs, one which Laura was taking.
Using blood samples, taken following their death, it was found that both Laura and Sarah shared their mothers mutation. A formal inquiry was scheduled, but the new found evidence was not being taken in seriousness. Professor Vinuesa then reached out to Prof. Peter Schwartz, who knew of an American family who shared Kathleen Folbigg’s problem. Even with this evidence, the judge reached a conclusion considering her diary entry more valid than the scientific evidence. This further encouraged the science network to bring “justice” for Kathleen Folbigg. More intricate studies into both Mr. and Mrs. Folbiggs genomes, revealed that they both had different rare mutations, which in mice had been linked to early lethal epileptic seizures. Culminating all the evidence, over 90 eminent scientists have agreed on Kathleen Folbigg’s innocence. Professor Vinuesa said, “We would feel exhilarated for Kathleen if she is pardoned, It would send a very strong message that science needs to be taken seriously by the legal system.”
This case brings on the important moral question of priority in evidence. Even with scientific evidence, should courts be allowed to say otherwise? Additionally, it gives importance to science in the legal system and the strong evidence it could procure, to either punish the wrong or save the innocent. Being a staunch believer in the power of science, I do believe that it deserves a larger seat in the legal system, however, not blind acceptance. The Kathleen Folbigg case is just the stepping stone for science to make its way into the law game. A diary entry is far more ambiguous than scientific proof that has been validated by several eminent scientists. This only brings to the question of whether it should be easier to reverse convictions if facts allow it. However, the question of Kathleen Folbigg still remains unanswered, was it genes or really genocide?