A woman who was dubbed ‘Australia’s worst serial killer’ after being convicted over the deaths of her four kids has been pardoned in light of pioneering scientific research.
Kathleen Folbigg, 55, was jailed for 25 in 2003 after a jury found her guilty of three counts of murder and one of manslaughter.
Each child had died suddenly between 1989 and 1999, aged between 19 days and 19 months.
Although there was no physical evidence of injuries or foul play, prosecutors alleged Folbigg, who has always protested her innocence, had smothered the infants.
She was convicted based on circumstantial evidence, including diary entries handed over by her then husband in which she said how ‘guilt about them all haunts me’.
She was released from prison in Grafton, New South Wales, on Monday after an inquiry found there was now ‘reasonable doubt’ of her guilt.
It focused on recent insights into genetic traits which undermined one of the prosecution’s key arguments: that four children from one family dying of natural causes before the age of two was incredibly unlikely.
In 2018, scientists discovered that her two daughters, Sarah and Laura, had carried a rare DNA mutation linked to severe heart problems and sudden death in infancy.
It was poorly understood at the time but was later classed as ‘likely pathogenic’ after further research led by a team from the Australian National University.
Australian legal officials refused to reopen the case for years, but the research team’s leader, Prof Carola Vinuesa, continued to present research suggesting the verdict was ‘deeply unjust’ and gained the backing of a number of other experts.
An inquiry into Folbigg’s convictions was eventually opened, and also hear evidence that one of her sons, Patrick, may have died from an underlying neurogenetic disorder such as epilepsy.
The leader of the inquiry, former state chief justice Thomas Bathurst, found there was a reasonable possibility that Patrick, Sarah and Laura had died of natural causes.
The fourth and eldest child, Caleb, was believed to have died of sudden infant death syndrome until the 2003 criminal case against Folbigg emerged.
Now it was clear his siblings could also have died naturally, the ‘coincidence and tendency evidence which was central’ to allegations of Caleb’s manslaughter ‘falls away’, Mr Bathurst said.
Mr Bathurst said he had reached ‘a firm view that there was reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Ms Folbigg for each of the offences for which she was originally tried’.
‘I am unable to accept … the proposition that Ms Folbigg was anything but a caring mother for her children’, he added.
An upcoming report will look at whether the mother’s convictions should be quashed, although her pardon means she is a free woman.
The attorney general for New South Wales, where the mother was convicted, has said it will consider whether changed to the law are needed to prevent such situations in the future.
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