Kathleen Folbigg has been in prison for 17 years, convicted of serially killing her four small children.
Her supporters claim that she is a latter-day Lindy Chamberlain: A victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.
Now, two Nobel laureates – Elizabeth Blackburn and Peter Doherty – are among 90 scientists who have petitioned the NSW governor to pardon Folbigg.
They say that genetic research – published in November – has finally caught up with the case, providing evidence that suggests the children were likely to have died from natural causes due to rare genetic mutations.
What’s the back story here?
The children all died suddenly, each while at rest in their cots, over a 10-year period between February 1989 and March 1999.
Folbigg was found to have smothered the children – by way of supposition more than forensic evidence, of which there was none.
Essentially, the case against Folbigg was circumstantial, based on what’s known as tendency evidence: Losing one child from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (unexplained death of an infant during sleep) could be accepted as bad luck, while losing four was too much of a coincidence, and was more likely to arise from malfeasance.
Folbigg’s case was damaged by diary entries that could be read in a sinister light – or represent the anxieties and shame of a woman who blamed herself for the deaths of her children due to poor mothering.
One entry, from October 25, 1997, reads: “I cherish Laura more, I miss her [Sarah] yes but am not sad that Laura is here & she isn’t. Is that a bad way to think, don’t know. I think I am more patient with Laura. I take the time to figure what is rong [sic] now instead of just snapping my cog … Wouldn’t of [sic] handled another like Sarah. She’s saved her life by being different.”
Folbigg was also said to have shown no emotion during her trial, a charge that famously damaged the case and public perception of Ms Chamberlain.
At a 2019 judicial inquiry, prompted by strong petitioning on the grounds of new forensic evidence, Folbigg – who didn’t testify at the original trial – blamed supernatural powers for taking the life of her children, claiming there were “things going on beyond my control”.
The retired chief judge who oversaw the inquiry found he did not have “any reasonable doubt” as to Folbigg’s guilt – and concluded that the evidence presented at the inquiry “makes her guilt of these offences even more certain”.
The petition from scientists and doctors was made public this week, as a NSW Supreme Court considers an appeal that seeks to overturn the findings of the 2019 judicial inquiry.
So what’s the science that changes everything?
In 2019, a team of scientists from Australia, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the United States and France were asked to investigate if a genetic cause could explain the children’s deaths.
The idea was to gather evidence to be presented at the judicial inquiry – a tough ask given the timeframe.
Still, the inquiry heard it was “likely that the two female Folbigg children had died as a result of the CALM2 G114R variant, while the two male children died from different causes that could also be genetic”.
The CALM 2 gene is one of the calmodulin genes that regulates the movement of calcium in and out of heart muscles – and plays an essential part in the complex process of contracting the heart.
Variants of these genes, such as CALM2 G114R, can lead the heart beat to go haywire, and then stop.
The judicial inquiry, held in April 2019, wasn’t moved by these early findings.
Five months later, a group of scientists – led by Professor Peter J Schwartz, Director, the Centre for Cardiac Arrhythmias of Genetic Origin in Milan – published a report on real-life cases of calmodulinopathies, “rare life-threatening arrhythmia syndromes which affect mostly young individuals and are, caused by mutations in any of the three genes (CALM 1-3) that encode identical calmodulin proteins”.
The team surveyed 74 people with these mutations, and found that 27 per cent of those with a calmodulinopathy suffered a sudden cardiac death.
As Cosmos reported in a detailed explainer: Their average age was just under six years.
“The genetic variants were linked to irregular heartbeats called ventricular fibrillation, which are typically fatal, and to a condition called Long QT Syndrome, which shows up on the resting heart trace or ‘ECG’ and can cause chaotic, lethal heart beats,” the explainer says.
This persuasively suggests that Sarah and Laura Folbigg died from heart attacks.
The new paper concludes that the girls inherited the gene variant from their mother.
Laura was found to suffer with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle.
There are rare cases of the myocarditis causing death, but in this instance it may have served as a trigger for a fatal arrhythmia.
The evidence that the male children, Caleb and Patrick, died from a genetic defect is in a preliminary stage.
The scientists found the boys carried two mutated copies of a gene that, when malfunctioning, causes early onset lethal epilepsy in mice.
Patrick suffered with epilepsy for four months before he died.