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Convenient Villains: Kathleen Folbigg’s Miscarriage of Justice

They – being the howling press, the screeching vox populi, and anybody else wishing to weigh in – were very clear about it. Kathleen Folbigg was guilty as hell and deserved her special place in it. For two decades, she spent her time behind bars in New South Wales, condemned by a jury for killing her four children, Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura. 

The prosecution’s approach in 2003 was glacial, instrumental and without nuance. Crudely, it was suggested that Folbigg’s diaries, given to police by her then husband, had revealed an admission of guilt for the murder of three of her children, infliction of grievous bodily harm on one child and the manslaughter of her first born. The methods: smothering or various other harmful applications.

Guilt can hardly ever count as a confession. Those blood hounds on the prosecution tend to ignore that fact. They went for the obvious point: the oddity of having four children dying in natural circumstances, and the words “guilt about them all haunts me”.

That Folbigg supposedly confessed became the stuff of literature and criminal folklore. It made its way into such works as Secret Mothers’ Business, authored by Joanne Fedler. “I was startled by her [Folbigg’s] confessions,” she reflects. “Partly because they so closely resembled those I had penned during some gruelling times when my children were little.” You dirty confessional failed child killer.

The spear in the case had already been fashioned by community sentiment, the hungry expectations of the tribe. The mother cannot ever be assumed to hate her children, or feel resentment towards them. The nurturing symbol is all powerful, and anything designed to challenge or malign it must be quashed. The rearing figure must love and be congratulated for doing so. The mother is destiny, security, and reassurance. The impregnator – Daddy, Father, carefree Fucker – is the one who either stays, moves on, or watches over his shoulder for the son who might depose him. Judgment on that score is less stern.

For all such cheap Freudian assumptions, the scientifically minded did not give up the ghost on Folbigg’s case. Those empirical crunching types came knocking with meaty fists. They insisted that something else was afoot. An entire picture had been omitted. 

Clinical geneticist Carola Vinuesa of the Francis Crick Institute played the starring, brilliantly meddling role. In 2018, the case, prompted by the urgings of a former student, drew her interest. Only one month prior, she, along with her colleagues, had identified a genetic mutation behind infant deaths in a family in Macedonia. Vinuesa’s mind clicked: given that a third of deaths in infants and children more broadly might be put down to genetic predispositions, the Folbigg case loomed large. Far from being unnatural, the instance of having four infant deaths in a family could be put down to natural causes.

Patterns started emerging for this daring hypothesis. There were underlying illnesses in all four children, including respiratory infections. Vinuesa, her interest tickled and piqued, tasked her colleague Todor Arsov to pay a visit to the incarcerated Folbigg. A DNA sample was secured. On examination, the mutation in a gene, CALM2 G114R, stood out. That particular gene has a rather nasty resume of bodily mischief, encoding calmodulin, a protein with a misfunction responsible for infancy deaths and a number of disorders, including heart arrythmias.

This finding, while remarkable, was not deemed conclusive, at least initially. Vinuesa’s crew proceeded to test samples from the daughters. They identified that the mutation had been inherited. That did not answer the issue as to whether mutation was pathogenic or harmless. Certitude evaded the investigators.

In 2019, the inquiry into Folbigg’s conviction was unmoved. Undeterred, an incensed Vinuesa pursued the matter. More studies were made and gathered to make the case that the CALM2 mutation was pathogenic, culminating in a 2020 publication that concluded that “calmodulinopathy emerges as a reasonable explanation for a natural cause” of the infant deaths in the Folbigg case.

What tipped the scales in favour of a finding of pathogenic effects was the intervention of Peter Schwartz of the Italian Auxological Institute. An expert on the links between calmodulin mutations and cardiac effects, he noted a similar family to that of Folbigg: healthy mother afflicted with the calmodulin mutation; two children; two heart attacks, one fatal. The Australian Academy of Science was also more than willing to put its oar into the matter.

In April, the former New South Wales Chief Justice Tom Bathurst made a submission to a second inquiry concluding that Folbigg’s conviction was marred by reasonable doubt. Lawyers, this time representing the resentful, unforgiving father Craig Folbigg, kept up the show. To have four children in one family dying from natural causes was a “fundamental implausibility”. 

NSW Attorney-General Michael Daley begged to differ, as did the governor of the state, who signed a full pardon. “It’s a day to celebrate that science has been heard and has made a difference,” stated Vinuesa. “And not just to this case, I think.”

The matter will interest those concerned by the effects of crushing legal systems, brought to bear upon the ritually demonised. To kill children is seen as atrocious, even by law systems that tolerate their incarceration, molestation and slow burn murder. But to have a woman supposedly do a Medea is simply unacceptable for the nauseatingly righteous. The tribe’s heads shake vigorously; justice must be seen to be done; however unjust it be.

On this occasion, justice was done, though delayed by two decades. It is unlikely to change the focus of the legal system. The contributors to Folbigg’s pardon were right in insisting that science, on this occasion, won out, limping through though devastatingly relevant. But for those facing the brute realities of a prosecution now, that is hardly reassuring. Societies crave convenient villains, and they will always be found.

 

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11 comments

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  1. wam

    Sadly, this old atheist cynic has concerns about this couple:
    Have a baby it dies. Why?
    Have a baby it dies. Why?
    Have a baby it dies. Why?
    Have a baby it dies. Why?

  2. Tanya Carroll

    Well as an old saying goes Devil’s in the detail isn’t it, in what Clinical geneticists Carola Vinuesa who also happened to be thinking outside of the box with the kind of work she does of course. Then also after Vinuesa digging a little bit further into the nature of Kathleen Folbigg’s untimely passing & deaths of her 4 babies within the timeframe it happen with those years in question.

    Carola Vinuesa ended up finding the main missing piece to the actual puzzle. She come across 2 mutation of gene, CLAM2, G114R, that stood out like sore thumb & she was on to something that has never happened before within the scientific theory or method of terminology world before until now.

    Ask yourself this question how else did Vinuesa test the blood of her 4 babies long after they all died at different times & stages of the 4 babies infancy deaths back then. I know how our heel prick of spots of blood that was done few days after we are born to see if babies had any issues going on within them. As every hell prick that has been done over years & decides is all under a secure lock & key on the little piece of cardboard with our names & date of birth on it too.

    Ask yourself this question how many of you all have any understanding or knowledge of genetically factors, disorders & diseases mainly within the Brain area that is also called “Neurological Birth Defect”. This also goes back to the mother & Father genetic makeup that they themselves might not have no idea about until it until it’s too late in game. How do you think the word “Acquired Disability” or “Disability” in general is spoken about as genetic when an infant has issues with it before its born, during or after their birth.

    It also should go back to the medical treatment in question when & where Kathleen Folbigg’s 4 babies were born & how well trained the medical staff in question was including others as well. We all know the wording of back in day called Cot Death until it got change to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) of course. Let me tell you all this l also got my own lived experiences journey of my own medical issues that also comes under “Neurological Birth Defect” that l also was born with long time ago.

    I am willing enough to share my story on here but before l do that you all heard of don’t judge the book by its cover until you actually read inside the book to understand what it means to oneself who reads it. I myself with background l have living with this invisible Neurological Birth Defect that is also called acquired brain injury, Brain damage, profoundly deaf on my left side also with 2 rare genetic brain disorders that l was born with.

    We are all still learning & should be learning from each other who are willing enough to learn & listen, mistakes will keep on happening until then, as l like to ask who many of you still living under a rock or is it the society & community in general that makes who we are today. Plus, don’t dare get me started on those rotten Politician this it about a mother who lost her 4 babies that no one was willing enough to listen to her truth & spent 20 years in jail too. 🙁

  3. Steve Davis

    wam, I’ve been considering your comment for some time, but cannot decide on the point you are making. Or should I say “the point you are hinting at.” Brevity is an admirable quality, but…
    So I’ll just say this.

    I saw a brief clip of a statement Kathleen Folbigg made to the media, and was impressed by her intelligence and depth of character.

  4. Kate

    When one baby dies, it is a sad and tragic event! When two innocent little babies die, it is not only a sad and tragic event but a catastrophic coincidence. When THREE babies, all in the one family, suddenly die (under mysterious circumstances), one has to scratch their head as it no doubt comes under the heading of: “Things that make you go Hmmmmmm!” However, when FOUR innocent little babies ALL die (under gruelling and mysterious circumstances) where the ONLY adult in attendance was the mother, it is BEYOND coincidence!

    Quite frankly, the only miscarriage of justice would be if they allow this unstable woman to walk out of jail and possibly have MORE children!

  5. Terence Mills

    The ‘reasonable doubt’ which allowed the release of Ms Folbigg came about as a result of developments in medical and forensic science in the last four years.

    The justice system did not fail but was inadequate based on available knowledge at the time of the trial and appeals ; at which time ‘reasonable doubt’ could not have been applied to the judgement.

    The original jury made their determination based on the standard of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ so it cannot now be suggested that there was a failure in the judicial system.

    Having said that, there can be no basis for compensation for wrongful conviction as some have suggested but there is a strong case for an ex gratia payment by the government to Ms Folbigg.

  6. Konn

    Steve D, also based on a news clip, my impression is that the woman is innocent. I’ll leave it at that, as only she knows.
    Tanya C, cots deaths have been linked to vaccination my some observers. What’s to say the 4 Folbiggs children were all genetically predisposed to severe reaction to one of the early childhood injections? Such a question is heresy to the gods of medicine, how dare anyone question the safety of a product made by a medicine-man, but the question needs to be asked – what injection(s) did the children get in the days or weeks prior to death?

  7. New England Cocky

    I applaud the Folbigg pardon decision as finally a repudiation of an inadequate MALE police ”investigation” and subsequent court process controlled by a MALE judge, both contenders for Misogynist of the Year.
    .
    Sadly the Folbigg Case stands alongside the Lindy Chamberlain ”a dingo took my baby” abuse of justice by MALE politicians reacting to huge media coverage demanding action from the eastern cities about a matter that occurred on the ground at Uluru, thousands of kilometers away from their cosy city offices.
    .
    By 2003 Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) was a well known and too frequent occurrence that medical doctors often refused to acknowledge. Research into the cause was negligible and doctors best advice was ”get pregnant again quickly”. We were lucky, we only lost one baby, a neighbour lost two babies ….. and all the affected adults carried the guilt and wondering to this day.
    .
    Almost 50 years later, excellent scientific research has identified what may be one mechanism of the SIDS diagnosis. Folbigg has finally benefited from this development. Once again this Folbigg pardon has demonstrated that police as a class in Australia are poorly recruited, inadequately trained and too frequently incompetent in their investigations of many matters …… before we comment on the impact of corruption in the ranks, up to Commissioner (Terry Lewis Queensland).

  8. leefe

    Kate:

    Try to wrap your head around the science. Our knowledge and understanding of medical issues is growing all the time. We now know things we did not when Folbigg”s children died. The role of the detected mutated genes is backed up by rigorous scientific research. We don’t get all suspicious when multiple people in a family with a history of breast cancer get – and die from – breast cancer. The primary difference is the timing of the research and understanding.

  9. Clakka

    A very sad story indeed. What gets me, is that there was no case to answer. There was no evidence or proof of infanticide (murder), and no circumstantial predisposition, other than the background of her father stabbing her mother to death which had no proven relevance. The police utterly failed with diligence to engage with medical or psychology experts in the initial case.

    Instead, when her hostile and blaming ex-husband (still hostile and blaming), found the diaries of a confused and grieving Folbigg, and provided them to police, the police dirty work began. Notably again they utterly failed to obtain expertise in the field, and instead set about deconstructing and reconstructing the words in the diaries, and presenting them utterly clipped and out of context as evidence of pre-meditation and therefore guilt. All despite many other factors and circumstances pointing towards her innocence and caring, including her persistent rejections of their allegations.

    The entire policing, judicial and trial by public and media, was an egregious accumulation of ignorance and miscarriage of reasonable process. A disgraceful display reminiscent of religious inquisitions and medieval witch hunts perpetrated by bloodthirsty men, with shame-shifting women baying for blood as a diversion from and expiation of their own deep-seated sense of being sinners. A fire & brimstone concept embedded by history’s religious narcissistic powers that be.

    In my opinion, in its entirety, it was a miscarriage of justice via a manipulation of ignorance which of course we know, in the eyes of the law, is no excuse. Therefore Folbigg is entitled to full and proper compensation for the loss of 20 years of her liberty, and the cost of the ordeals she was made to endure.

    It is no irony that this case serves as a major example (amongst the many) for the necessity across Oz for institution of a CCRC.

  10. New England Cocky

    @ Clakka: You raise important points about the ability of the police members who conducted this witch-hunt. Now that the state of NSW is likely to quite rightly pay significant damages for wrongful arrest, pain & suffering caused by the police service and the judicial system, what if anything will happened to the individual government employees who participated in this horrendous miscarriage of justice?

  11. Tanya Carroll

    I just put this link in here for those who can decide for themselves of how something that should off gotten right at start instead of an open & shut case putting a grieving mother away for 20 years. 🙁

    https://www.science.org,au/files/userfiles/events/news/documents/petition-to-governor-of-nsw-for-pardon-of-kathleen-folbigg-05-03-21.pdf

    @Clakka l do agree with you in the number of points you have brought up to our attention, I just park it there for now within reason of course.

    @New England Cocky Just how many individual government departments who were actually participated & involved within this very horrendous miscarriage of justice, will we ever find out of who they were, most likely not but they also played the cruellest card ever thinking it would just go away & never to be heard again. How they were so dam wrong back then & some might have thought she was innocent but totally said nothing not a word did they @NEC.

    @Konn This case in general has got absolutely nothing to do with (Vaccination) at all nothing has ever or even been spoken about it in-regarding to those 4 babies & including myself either. It also comes down to genetics of both parents in question then once a baby is born into a family good & healthy the infant just might also have some rare genetic disorders too.

    There is more l like to say but l just park it there for now as l did a bit more of my own research & deep dive that l ended come across that “Petition” l keep hearing about, but l never gotten to actually see it until late yesterday afternoon to my surprise of course. As l said in my original comment above, l do have a lived experience journey of my own “Neurological Birth Defect” do l need to say anymore. 🙁

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