Australia’s most eminent scientists have united to call for the immediate release of NSW woman Kathleen Folbigg, saying there’s compelling evidence she did not kill her four children.
Folbigg, 53, has spent 18 years in jail for murdering Patrick, Sarah and Laura, and for the manslaughter of her son Caleb.
Now a petition signed by 90 “world leading scientists” says genomic data that wasn’t available during the first trial “creates a strong presumption that the Folbigg children died of natural causes”.
The research identified a mutant gene that was carried by two of the Folbigg children which could have led to their deaths.
“The entire time that Kathleen Folbigg has been in custody is a result of a miscarriage of justice,” a petition sent to NSW Governor Margaret Beazley requesting a pardon says.
“She has endured the death of her four children and has been wrongfully incarcerated because the justice system has failed her,” the petition says.
The list of petitioners includes: president of the Australian Academy of Science John Shine, Nobel laureate Professor and former Australian of the year Peter Doherty and Nobel Prize prize winner Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Blackburn.
Former Australians of the year Professor Fiona Stanley and Professor Ian Frazer – who invented the cervical cancer vaccine – and former chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb, also signed the petition.
In 2003 Folbigg was sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, which was later reduced on appeal to 25 years.
The prosecution argued Folbigg smothered her children and she was convicted on circumstantial evidence from her diaries, with the prosecution arguing it was unlikely four of her children could die suddenly and unexpectedly in their sleep.
But forensic pathologists raised concerns over the medical evidence and in March 2019, there was a judicial inquiry into Folbigg’s convictions.
During the inquiry, the genomes of the Folbigg children were sequenced and it was found that the two girls had a novel mutation in the CALM2 gene.
Mutations in this gene are one of the best recognised causes of sudden death in infancy and childhood, both while asleep and awake.
Professor Carola Vinuesa, from the Australian National University, said scientists then sequenced Kathleen Folbigg’s whole genome.
“There was a chance that Kathleen herself might be carrying one of these variants, because they tend to be inherited,” Professor Vinuesa said in a statement.
It’s not uncommon for some variants that cause sudden death in children to remain silent in some individuals – some can carry the mutation but grow up as a healthy adult.
“So Folbigg could have been carrying these mutations and passed them on her children.
Because two of the children had an underlying condition or a mutated gene that meant they could all have died of natural causes.
The children had a condition that could cause an improper heartbeat – irregular, too fast or too slow – that can cause sudden cardiac death in children.
“If you do not take genetics into account, it would seem an exceptionally rare scenario to have four natural deaths in a family,” Prof Vinuesa said.
“Actually it isn’t.”
The petition said the case against Folbigg was “entirely circumstantial” and there was “no medical evidence to indicate smothering”.
“It is based on the proposition that the likelihood of four children from one family dying of natural causes is so unlikely as to be virtually impossible. This flawed logic, otherwise known as ‘Meadow’s Law’, permeated the trial and the 2019 inquiry.”
Timeline of events in the Kathleen Folbigg case
JUNE 14, 1967 – Kathleen Megan Donovan (later Folbigg) born
JANUARY 8, 1969 – Folbigg’s mother murdered by her father
1987 – Kathleen marries Craig Folbigg
FEBRUARY 20, 1989 – Caleb Folbigg dies aged 19 days
FEBRUARY 13, 1991 – Patrick Folbigg dies aged eight months
AUGUST 30, 1993 – Sarah Folbigg dies aged 10 months
MARCH 1, 1999 – Laura Folbigg dies, aged 18 months
OCTOBER 24, 2003 – Folbigg sentenced to 40 years in prison for murder, non-parole period is 30 years, later reduced on appeal to 25 years
JUNE 10, 2015 – NSW Governor David Hurley receives petition for review of convictions based on forensic pathology findings
OCTOBER 28, 2018 – Inquiry into convictions opens
MAY 2019 – An international medical registry reports that two US children have died of the mutation found in Sarah and Laura
JULY 2019 – Inquiry finds no reasonable doubt to Folbigg’s convictions. Validation of Folbigg mutation could not be completed before end of inquiry
NOVEMBER 17, 2020 – Likely role of CALM2 mutation in Sarah and Laura’s death confirmed in world leading study
MARCH 3, 2021 – Petition for Folbigg pardon sent to NSW Governor Margaret Beazley