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Kathleen Folbigg: how genetics could lead to a pardon for 'Australia's worst female serial killer'

Calla Wahlquist
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Leading scientific experts are petitioning for the pardon of the woman dubbed Australia’s worst female serial killer, arguing that all four of her children had rare genetic conditions that could explain their deaths.

Kathleen Folbigg is in jail for killing her children as infants between 1990 and 1999.

This week her supporters released a petition signed by 90 scientists, including leading global experts of rare genetic disorders, which argued that rare genetic mutations could explain the children’s sudden deaths.

The chance that one family would be so unlucky as to lose four babies from natural causes is slim. But, as one of the researchers pushing for Folbigg’s freedom said, “in genetics, one-off events are commonplace”.

Folbigg was jailed in 2003, after a seven-week trial in which the prosecution argued that she had smothered her children Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Elizabeth during moments of frustration.

She was convicted of the murders of Patrick, whose death aged eight months in 1991 was initially attributed to an asphyxia following an epileptic fit; Sarah, whose death at 10 months in 1993 was initially attributed to SIDS; and Laura, who died aged 19 months in 1999 with cause unknown; and of the manslaughter of Caleb, whose death at just 19 days old in 1990 was also attributed to SIDS. Folbigg has always maintained her innocence, saying her children died of natural causes.

Related: Scientists call for Kathleen Folbigg’s release, saying children likely died of natural causes

Reporting of the trial described Folbigg as showing no emotion. It drew comparisons to the trial of Lindy Chamberlain. Chamberlain was pardoned after being convicted for the murder of baby Azaria, who a coronial inquest later confirmed was taken by a dingo.

A key difference between the two cases are Folbigg’s diaries, which formed the basis for the murder case. They include entries from 1997, after Laura was born, saying: “Wouldn’t of handled another one like Sarah. She’s saved her life by being different.” And: “She’s a fairly good natured baby, thank goodness, it will save her from the fate of her siblings. I think she was warned.”

Another entry said: “With Sarah all I wanted was her to shut up. And one day she did.”

The crux of the petition is a study based on the full genomic sequencing of Folbigg and her four children – the latter of which were pulled from the tiny bit of blood recorded on hospital heel-prick cards at birth. It found that Folbigg had a previously unreported mutation to the CALM2 gene designated G114R. The CALM2 gene encodes for calmodulin, a calcium-modified protein, and mutations of this gene have been linked to sudden cardiac death.

The mutation was present in Sarah and Laura. Laura showed signs of myocarditis at autopsy.

The focus is now on solid evidence-based, peer-reviewed science

Folbigg's friend Tracy Chapman

Caleb and Patrick’s genomes showed a separate rare genetic variant in the BSN gene, which in studies in mice had been linked to early lethal epileptic fits. Patrick had been diagnosed with epilepsy four months before his birth, and Caleb had a floppy larynx and difficulty breathing.

The study by an international team of 27 scientists was published in the peer-reviewed cardiology journal Europace in 2019. Prof Carola Vinuesa from the Australian National University was on that research team, and is one of the signatories of the new petition. She wrote in the Conversation this week that researchers concluded the CALM2 variant “likely contributed to the natural deaths of the two girls by altering the heart’s normal rhythm”.

The same researchers are now conducting further research into the boys’ genomes.

Ian Connellan, the editor-in-chief of the Royal Institute of Australia, which supported the petition, said the science has shifted since Folbigg was convicted. He said the case “may also prove to be pivotal, in the way our courts are geared to accept peer-supported scientific evidence, including relatively new discoveries, especially when pitted against otherwise circumstantial details”.

The NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, said the petition would be given appropriate consideration.

Folbigg’s sentence was reduced on appeal in 2005, from 40 years to 30, with a non-parole period of 25 years. If the petition to pardon her is not granted, the 53-year-old will be eligible for parole, with time served, in 2028.

The New South Wales court of criminal appeal has twice dismissed an appeal against the convictions. An application to appeal to the high court was also dismissed.

A 2019 inquiry, called as a result of another petition from Folbigg’s supporters, produced a 500-page report in which former district court chief judge Reginald Blanch QC found that the evidence presented at the inquiry “does not cause me to have any reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Kathleen Megan Folbigg for the offences of which she was convicted”.

“Indeed, as indicated, the evidence which has emerged at the inquiry, particularly her own explanations and behaviour in respect of her diaries, makes her guilt of these offences even more certain,” Blanch said.

Folbigg gave evidence at the inquiry and was asked to explain her diary entries. She said she believed a supernatural power took her children away, and they were reflective of the guilt she felt as a mother having lost children to natural causes.

A report containing the then unpublished findings of the CALM2 study was submitted to the inquiry, and Vinuesa gave evidence – an experience which, she said this week, she was not eager to repeat. Attempts to allow Prof Peter Schwarts, the lead author on the study and a global authority on genetic causes of cardiac arrhythmia, were not approved, and the court instead relied on the testimony of one cardiologist who was not an expert on CALM2.

But Blanch was not persuaded. He wrote: “Even on the basis of accepting the opinion of Professor Vinuesa that it is now plausible that Sarah and Laura Folbigg may have had a cardiac condition, and that that raises a possibility it caused their deaths, I do not consider the inquiry should be re-opened for the purpose of holding further hearings about the CALM2 variant identified in Sarah and Laura. For the reasons above, the further information received since the close of the evidence and submissions does not raise in my mind any reasonable doubt of Ms Folbigg’s guilt of these offences.”

Folbigg’s legal team challenged the inquiry in the supreme court, saying Blanch had demonstrated “apprehended bias” and failed to properly examine the genetic evidence. The court reserved its decision last month.

Folbigg’s friend Tracy Chapman said Folbigg was “thankful that the focus is now on solid evidence-based, peer-reviewed science in relation to this case, rather than on subjective coincidence and circumstantial evidence”.

“It’s nearly 18 years since she was first convicted but even if this attempt isn’t successful, we’ll keep fighting, because the truth never lies,” Chapman said.