CANBERRA, Australia – An Australian attorney general on Wednesday refused to pardon a mother who was convicted nearly 20 years ago of drowning her four children to death and instead ordered a new inquiry into whether there could be a medical explanation for the tragedies.
The research will be the second in three years on scientific evidence that all four of Kathleen Folbig’s children may have died of natural causes.
A growing number of scientists say Folbigg, now 54, could be the victim of a tragic judicial injustice.
The gap between legal and scientific opinion has widened with the advancement of genetic research since 2003, when Folbigg was convicted of three counts of murder and one count of manslaughter.
A petition to the governor of the state of New South Wales in March last year asking for a pardon from Folbig “on the basis of significant positive evidence for natural causes of death” was signed by 90 scientists, doctors and related professionals, including two Nobel laureates.
Attorney General Mark Speakman, who is advising the governor on such reports, said Wednesday that the case requires a transparent response, not a favor.
“I can understand why members of the public can shake their heads and roll their eyes in disbelief about the number of chances that Ms. Folbigg has had to clear her name and (ask) why the judiciary allows “Someone who has been convicted of … multiple homicides will go again,” Speakman said.
“There is certainly a lot of question or doubt that this new scientific evidence raises that justifies some form of intervention,” Speakman added.
Folbigg was sentenced to 30 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2028. None of her children survived until her second birthday.
Her first child, Caleb, was born in 1989 and died 19 days later in what the court found to be the minor crime of negligent homicide. Her second child, Patrick, was 8 months old when she died in 1991. Two years later, Sarah died at the age of 10 months. In 1999, Folbig’s fourth child, Laura, died at the age of 19 months.
An autopsy found Laura had myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle that can be fatal. Patrick suffered from epilepsy and his death was attributed to airway obstruction due to epileptic seizures and infection. The other two deaths were recorded as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The criminal case against Folbigg was occasional and was based on interpretations of vague diary entries, one of which was read by her estranged husband and reported to police.
In addition to the new scientific evidence, Folbigg’s lawyer, Rhanee Rego, said she expected the new research to look at reports from psychiatrists, psychologists and linguists who say there were no murder confessions in the diaries.
“We are confident that the overwhelming evidence will finally release Kathleen Folbigg and prove her innocence,” Rego said in a statement.
Speakman said he turned down an invitation from the Australian Academy of Sciences, an independent body representing scientists, to explain the evidence against Folbigg’s guilt.
The academy’s managing director, Anna-Maria Arabia, said she respected the government’s decision to conduct a second inquiry, despite the fact that many scientists agreed that there was “overwhelming evidence justifying Folbigg’s immediate release”.
In 2015, Folbigg’s lawyers successfully filed a lawsuit for her convicts based on concerns raised by several medical examiners.
Retired Judge Reginald Blanch concluded in 2019 that Folbigg was “untrue” and “unbelievable” in trying to hide her guilt.
Blanche also heard from Carola Vinuesa, co-director of the Center for Personalized Immunology at the National University of Australia, that both the girls and their mother had a recently discovered genetic mutation associated with abnormal heartbeats and sudden .
In 2020, Oxford University Press, the journal Europace, published the findings of 27 scientists from Australia, the United States, Canada, France, Denmark and Italy describing the genetic mutation in Folbigg girls. The team also reported that the boys carried different and rare variants of a gene that, when defective, causes mice to die young from seizures.
Retired New South Wales Chief Justice Tom Bathurst will conduct the new investigation. He could possibly recommend pardoning Folbigg or overturning her convictions, Speakman said.
“Whatever the outcome of this investigation is, it’s a great tragedy,” Speakman said.