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

Prominent scientists are calling for the release of convicted New South Wales child killer Kathleen Folbigg, saying there’s strong evidence she is innocent.

Folbigg was jailed in 2003 for murdering her children Patrick, Sarah and Laura, and for the manslaughter of her son Caleb.

However a petition signed by 90 eminent scientists says important scientific and medical discoveries have since been made, pointing to evidence the children died from natural causes.

A series of reports by leading science publication COSMOS backgrounds the breakthroughs scientists say shifts the weight of evidence in the case, leading to them sending a petition to NSW governor Margaret Beazley asking for Folbigg to be pardoned.

The prosecution case argued Folbigg smothered her children but scientific discoveries have thrown into question that conclusion, they say.

Ian Connellan, editor-in-chief of the Royal Institution of Australia and publisher of COSMOS, said: “The key factor is that the science has shifted in this case, through new knowledge.”

“This long list of incredibly learned and eminent Australians is demanding justice be served,” he said in a statement on Thursday.

“It 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.”

Tracy Chapman, who visits Folbigg weekly in jail, has long campaigned for the release of her friend.

“Kathleen and I are 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,” Chapman said.

“Kathleen said that it’s not just about her case anymore, it’s for all mothers, all parents, so that this never happens to another woman or family again.

“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.”

Folbigg was convicted on circumstantial evidence and evidence from her diaries, with the prosecution arguing it was unlikely four of her children could die suddenly and unexpectedly in their sleep.

But forensic pathologists raised concerns over medical evidence provided at the trial and in March 2019, there was a judicial inquiry into Folbigg’s convictions.

According to the medical records, the four children suffered from a series of conditions before they died: the first boy, Caleb, had difficulties breathing since birth; the second, Patrick, suffered epileptic seizures; and girls Sarah and Laura had respiratory infections only a few days before their deaths.

Scientists say these conditions suggest that if there was a single underlying natural cause it was likely to be genetic, with a broad spectrum of manifestations and lethal triggers.

A multidisciplinary, international team of scientists embarked on a study to find the culprit and hypothesised that rare inherited genetic variants could be responsible for the cardiac or respiratory disorders behind the children’s sudden deaths.

Prof Carola Vinuesa, from the Australian National University, said the team began by sequencing Kathleen Folbigg’s whole genome.

“Given that it was much more complicated to extract the genome of the children, there was a chance that Kathleen herself might be carrying one of these variants, because they tend to be inherited,” Vinuesa said in a statement.

It’s not uncommon for some variants that cause sudden death in children to remain silent in some individuals – some can carry the mutation but grow up as a healthy adult.

“So Folbigg could have been carrying these mutations and passed them on her children.

“It was a bit of a long shot,” Vinuesa said.

They found all her children had an underlying condition or a mutated gene that meant they could all have died of natural causes.

They found the children had a condition that could cause an improper heartbeat – irregular, too fast or too slow – that can cause sudden cardiac death in children.

“If you do not take genetics into account, it would seem an exceptionally rare scenario to have four natural deaths in a family,” Vinuesa said.

“Actually it isn’t.”

A spokesperson for the NSW attorney general, Mark Speakman, said the petition would be given appropriate consideration, and noted that Folbigg’s convictions had been examined in two appeals to the court of criminal appeal, a special leave application to the high court and an inquiry.

“As the attorney general will make a recommendation to Her Excellency the governor to resolve the petition, it would not be appropriate for the attorney general to provide further comment at this stage.”

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