Kathleen and Craig Folbigg’s first baby, Caleb, died when he was 19 days old. Kathleen had fed him at about 1 am and he went back to sleep. When she checked on him a couple of hours later, she found him limp and not breathing. Despite Craig’s efforts at CPR until the ambulance arrived, the baby was pronounced dead at the hospital, a presumed victim of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
An almost identical incident occurred with their second child, Patrick, who had been born about a year following Caleb’s death. One night Kathleen heard the infant coughing in his crib and she comforted him until he went back to sleep. Checking in a few hours later, she found him limp, blue, and not breathing. This time the paramedics were able to resuscitate the child but he was diagnosed with partial blindness and epilepsy. Four months later, at eight months of age, he stopped breathing during an epileptic seizure and could not be revived.
Kathleen and Craig had both grown up in the suburbs of Sydney but had dissimilar backgrounds. Craig was from a large, close Catholic family but his mother had died when he was a teenager. Kathleen was an only child whose upbringing was anything but stable. When Kathleen was only 18 months old, her mother had been stabbed to death by her father shortly after trying to leave the abusive marriage. After living a short time with relatives, Kathleen entered foster care. Though she established a good relationship with the family’s children, they were older and soon left the household behind. Her foster father was described as distant and her foster mother as tough, controlling, and abusive. Kathleen left home and high school at age 15 and moved in with a friend. In 1987, at the age of 18, she married Craig Folbigg. Two years later they started the family that they hoped would bring them the stability they sought.
In 1992, Kathleen and Craig decided to start that family again. Sarah was born in October. This time they decided to keep the child’s bed in their bedroom so they could keep a closer eye on her. Yet, two months before her first birthday, Sarah was found motionless and blue in her bed. Like her brother Caleb, another victim of SIDS.
Three years later, despite the emotional strains on their marriage, Kathleen was again pregnant. Their daughter, Laura was born is 1997. This time, the physicians performed a complete medical evaluation of the baby – blood work, sleep apnea testing, and newborn screening for inherited metabolic disorders. Even though all the results were normal, Laura went home on a heart monitor and thrived. The Folbiggs celebrated her first birthday, the first of their children to meet that milestone, with a huge neighborhood party. Life was good. Until it wasn’t. Seven months later, Laura died; she’d stopped breathing. An autopsy revealed myocarditis, an inflammatory condition that causes irregular heart rhythms, shortness of breath, and sometimes, sudden cardiac death.
At this point, suspicions were aroused. Were the Folbiggs the most unlucky couple in Australia or was foul play involved? Each of the infants’ deaths could be attributed to natural causes; but four deaths in the same family needed to be investigated.
Meanwhile, the stress on Kathleen and Craig was overwhelming and, despite counseling, they separated. While Craig was going through their belongings, he found the first of many diaries that Kathleen had kept during her childbearing years. A second was found when police searched the house. Kathleen had thrown out the rest. I believe this was the factor that put all the blame on Kathleen and none on Craig. The diaries contained statements that might be made by a distraught mother or by one who was overwhelmed and guilty.
“Obviously, I’m my father’s daughter.”
“My guilt of how responsible I feel for them all, haunts me. My fear of it happening again haunts me…what scares me most will be when I‘m alone with the baby. How do I overcome that?”
“I feel like the worst mother on earth.”
Kathleen was arrested and charged with murder in April 2001 and was released on bail. Her case went to trial two years later and lasted seven weeks. The prosecutors relied heavily on the diary entries to show Kathleen’s mental instability. They also asserted that four children in the same family dying of natural causes for which there was scanty evidence was extremely improbable. The prosecutor stated in closing arguments that he couldn’t disprove four natural causes of death but he also couldn’t disprove that “one day some piglets might be born from a sow, and the piglets might come out of the sow with wings on their back.”
The defense argued that diary entries could be interpreted as the ramblings of a shocked and grieving mother. Character witnesses swore that Kathleen was a capable and caring mother who fed and cared for her infants well and who was distraught by their deaths. There was no physical evidence on autopsy that supported smothering. They argued that if the deaths had not occurred in one family, each infant’s cause of death would not even be questioned (laryngomalacia, epilepsy, SIDS, and myocarditis respectively.) And finally, they argued that the prosecution’s evidence was entirely circumstantial.
Following nine hours of deliberation the jury delivered the verdict of guilty. Kathleen Folbigg was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She was remanded to a maximum security prison where she was locked in her cell for 22 hours a day to protect her from other prisoners who target “baby killers.” She was, in fact, beaten by an inmate during her transfer to another prison with a prisoner protection wing.
Meanwhile, reexamination of cases of women charged with unexplained infant deaths increased after the infamous story of Lindy Chamberlain, who had claimed that a dingo had taken her baby. (She was convicted and served nine years before her sentence was reversed. A dingo had, indeed, killed her infant daughter.) Her wrongful conviction of infanticide had eventually been overturned as had others. Kathleen Folbigg’s defense team began gathering data in support of her appeals.
A new member to the team, Carola Garcia de Vinuesa was brought on to evaluate if DNA testing could provide insight into the infant’s deaths. Upon genome sequencing of Kathleen’s and her infants’ DNA samples, a mutation in the CALM2 genes were identified in both of her daughter’s genes. Genetic research has now shown that the mutation causes sudden cardiac deaths in adults and infants. The boys also had inherited a rare variant in their genome that causes fatal epilepsy in mice — but has not yet been studied in humans. This information, indeed this science, was not available at the time of Kathleen’s trial.
Even with this new information, however, all of Kathleen Folbigg’s appeals have been denied without consideration of the new scientific findings. From my readings of the case, it seems like the court would rather retain an innocent person in prison rather than admit that the court may have made a mistake. Should not evidence discovered after the trial be considered in appeal? The only option left to Kathleen now is to petition the governor of New South Wales to enact the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, in U.S. terms, to grant her a pardon.
Folbigg’s legal team, along with the Australian Academy of Science, have collected more than 100 signatures from leading genetic experts, cardiac specialists, and two Nobel laureates. The petition argues that the new genetic evidence raises reasonable doubt about Katheen having killed her children. The legal team has drafted the petition which includes the warning that keeping Folbigg in prison sets the precedent “that cogent medical and scientific evidence can simply be ignored in preference to subjective interpretations of circumstantial evidence.” According to Vinuesa, Kathleen is studying for a degree in counseling so that, whenever she is released from prison, she can work with mothers who are grieving their lost children.
Inspired by an article in Wired Magazine 12.09.2021