Mother wrongly jailed for 20 years over the death of her four children has convictions quashed

Kathleen Folbigg, right, is embraced by friend Tracy Chapman outside the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.

Kathleen Folbigg, right, is embraced by friend Tracy Chapman outside the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney, Dec. 14, 2023.Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image/APBrisbane, AustraliaCNN — 

An Australian mother who spent two decades in prison after she was wrongly found guilty of killing her four children had her convictions formally quashed Thursday, as her lawyers called for legal reform and “substantial” compensation.

Kathleen Folbigg was pardoned and freed in June on the recommendation of retired judge Tom Bathurst, who re-examined all the evidence put to her 2003 trial and found “reasonable doubt” as to her guilt.

But clearing her name required a formal ruling by the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, and on Thursday, a panel of judges agreed she should be acquitted of all charges, concluding one of the country’s most prominent miscarriages of justice.

Outside the court, an emotional Folbigg thanked supporters who worked tirelessly to convince the NSW government and legal system that new scientific evidence warranted closer scrutiny of her convictions.

Kathleen Folbigg released a video statement thanking supporters for working to free her from prison after 20 years.

Mothers accused of harming their babies are turning to the same science that freed Kathleen Folbigg

“The time this has taken in seeing today’s result has cost many people a lot,” Folbigg said, as she stood beside her lawyers and closest friends. “I hoped and prayed that one day I would be able to stand here with my name cleared.”

Folbigg was jailed in 2003 on three counts of murder and one of manslaughter following the deaths of her four babies over a decade from 1989.

No physical proof was submitted that she had killed them, but the jury was convinced that the chances of all four dying from natural causes was so unlikely that it must have been murder. Certain passages in her diary were also interpreted as admissions of guilt.

As recently as 2019, an inquiry into her convictions found there was “no reasonable doubt” she had committed the crimes. But another inquiry began in 2022 after scientists discovered a previously unknown mutant gene in her two daughters that could have been fatal.

The evidence provided a genetic explanation for the children’s deaths, which created “reasonable doubt” about her convictions, and enough to convince a judge to recommend her pardon.

Wrongful convictions

Folbigg’s first baby Caleb died in 1989, followed by Patrick in 1991, Sarah in 1993 and finally Laura in 1999.

The first three deaths were initially attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a term used when babies under 1 die for no apparent reason.

At 18 months, Laura was the longest lived of Folbigg’s children, and police began investigating after a forensic pathologist marked the cause of her death as “undetermined.” She was charged and convicted as newspaper headlines declared her to be “Australia’s worst serial killer.”

For decades, Folbigg languished in prison despite acquittals in similar cases in the United Kingdom that had also relied on “Meadow’s law,” the false maxim pushed by discredited British pediatrician Roy Meadow that one sudden infant death in a family is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder.

On Thursday, Chief Justice Andrew Bell said the appeals court judges agreed with Bathurst’s findings that “substantial and extensive body of new scientific evidence” outweighed evidence heard at her trial. They also found that her diaries, when viewed in the full context supported by new expert psychological and psychiatric evidence, were “not reliable admissions of guilt.”

Outside the court, Folbigg’s lawyer Rhanee Rego said Folbigg’s legal team will now seek compensation, which she predicted would be “substantial.”

“I’m not prepared to put a figure on it, but it will be bigger than any substantial payment that has been made before,” she said.

More importantly, they’re pushing all Australian states to create an independent body for review, such as a Criminal Cases Review Commission, to prevent future miscarriages of justice.

“An innocent woman suffering can and should be recognized and become a major impetus to improve our legal system,” Rego said.

Anna-Maria Rabia, Chief Executive of the Australian Academy of Science, echoed calls for an independent review commission in all the country’s jurisdictions.

“Here in New South Wales, we’ve just seen the crushing of the convictions of Kathleen Folbigg after 20 years in jail. If a case of this magnitude does not trigger law reform, I’m not sure what does,” she said.

“It is time for Australia to review its legal system to ensure it can be more scientifically informed, particularly given the pace of change of scientific discovery and technological advances.”

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