By LUCY ORMONDE
Caleb Folbigg was just 19 days old when he died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – or ‘cot death – in 1989.
Patrick Folbigg was next. He was eight months old when he died from a suspected epileptic fit in 1991.
Sarah Folbigg was 10 months old when she died, also from SIDS, two years later.
And then there was Laura.
Laura Folbigg survived the longest out of any of the Folbigg children. She was 19 months old when she died on March 1, 1999. The coroner ruled it was myocarditis, a inflammation of the heart, that killed Laura without warning one night while she was sleeping.
All four children were found by their mother, Kathleen, who woke her husband Craig screaming when she discovered her babies were not breathing.
After initial investigations, each of the children’s deaths were deemed to be natural. But after Laura’s death in 1999, authorities began to get suspicious.
And it was enough for a 12-person jury to find Kathleen Folbigg guilty of three counts of murder and one count of manslaughter, following a seven-week trial in 2003.
Folbigg, 46, is currently serving a maximum 30 year sentence at NSW’s Silverwater Jail.
But the question everyone is asking today is whether the courts got it wrong; they’re asking whether it’s possible that Kathleen has been wrongly convicted.
This question was the focus of Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program last night.
During the extended broadcast, reporter Tara Brown spoke to legal and medical experts who believe that there is now enough evidence to prove that Kathleen Folbigg’s children did not die at the hands of their mother; that, as initially decided, it was simply a series of extremely unfortunate events.
They believe that an innocent woman may have been put behind bars, when really she should have been the subject of comfort, support and love. After all, she is a mother who has lost her children.
Legal academic Emma Cunliffe has been following the case for 10 years. She has written a book called Murder, Medicine & Motherhood and, according to the 60 Minutes report, believes that Folbigg’s case was “tainted by unreliable and outdated medical evidence, which has led to a terrible miscarriage of justice.”
This is part of the 60 Minutes transcript:
TARA BROWN: Original autopsies found each child died of natural causes. Caleb and Sarah were the victims of SIDS, and Patrick died as a result of an epileptic fit. But then, in court, some of the same medical experts inexplicably changed their opinion, cementing the murder case against Kathleen.
EMMA CUNLIFFE: At the trial, the doctors who had been involved with Patrick’s care at that time said they no longer stood by those diagnoses, but at the time that he died they saw that death as natural.
TARA BROWN: Why did they change their minds?
EMMA CUNLIFFE: They didn’t say.
TARA BROWN: Was there any forensic evidence that proved there was homicide?
EMMA CUNLIFFE: There was no positive evidence of homicide in relation to any child.
Dr Cunliffe maintains that there was not enough evidence to convict Folbigg for the murders of her children. Cunfliffe says that back in 2003, there was a medical assumption that foul play must be involved; that there was little or no doubt that it was possible for four children from one family die in separate incidents.
It was this, coupled with extracts from Folbigg’s “guilt-ridden” personal diary in which she admits to thinking she’s “the worst mother in the world” and says “stress made (her) do terrible things”, that possibly led to Folbigg’s conviction.
“It’s a terrifying notion, that four children might die in a single family, and that those deaths might be unexplained,” Dr Cunliffe said.
“This case, in part I think, is about offering an explanation. It’s about saying you’re not at risk of having your children dying unexpectedly, because these children were murdered.”
Another piece of evidence explored by 60 Minutes was that from Professor of Infant Physiology, Dr Peter Fleming. Dr Flemming said that the lack of markings on 19-month-old Laura’s body meant it was unlikely that she was smothered.
“If something was pressing on her face, on the front here – and it would have to obstruct both her mouth and nose, the teeth are right behind the lip. And it’s hard to imagine how a wriggling child – and I’m certain the child would wriggle – would not damage the inside of the lip.’
‘I have very considerable doubt about the medical and scientific evidence given against her,’’ he said.
When 60 Minutes took an online Facebook poll asking viewers whether Kathleen Folbigg was wrongly convicted, 56 per cent of the 3581 respondents answered ‘no’ and 44 per cent answered ‘yes’. In the 2000+ accompanying comments, Folbigg was called a “wicked, selfish woman”. Some people even called for capital punishment.
“Lock away the key,” one commenter said.
“Women like her should be desexed,” was the comment from another.
Similarly to the way Lindy Chamberlain was ridiculed 30 years ago, many of the commenters said that Kathy ‘didn’t seem sad enough’ during police interviews. Others maintained that the Australian justice system is one that works and that authorities “don’t just put away anyone away for nothing.” If Folbigg was found guilty by a jury of her peers then that should be enough, they argue.
One person who doesn’t believe Kathleen has been wrongly convicted is her foster sister, Lea Brown. She believes what was written in Kathleen’s diary was reason enough to convict her.
“I think she got to the stage where she couldn’t handle it anymore – where she wanted her freedom – and the children started to become a burden to her, and they were stopping her doing what she wanted to do,” Lea Brown told 60 Minutes.
“Kathy has been tried and found guilty, and she has to serve out her sentence,” she said.
Alana House, who is the editor of Mamamia’s sister site, iVillage.com.au, is a friend of Kathleen Folbigg. (She’s written a post for Mamamia about Kathleen which you can read here). They went to school together and it recent years, Alana has written in detail about Kathleen. In the years since Kathleen was convicted in 2003, Alana and Kathleen have spent many hours together at the Silverwater Jail and over time, Alana has got to know the woman who’s often been referred to as “Australia’s worst serial killer”.
Yesterday, the day of the 60 Minutes broadcast, Alana went to visit the woman she refers to as ‘Kathy’.
This is what she wrote on her blog this morning:
Kathy was subdued when I saw her yesterday morning. Nervous about the direction the story would take and what her foster sister would say. She’s become so accustomed to being portrayed as a monster that the idea of being given a fair hearing seems almost impossible to her.
It was unsettling walking into the jail. Even the prison officer who processed my paperwork couldn’t help commenting about her appearing on TV that night. The officers and the inmates in the protection wing have apparently been buzzing about it.
Alana said she cried as she watched 60 Minutes last night. She cried thinking of her friend who was most likely sitting in her cell watching it alone. She cried for the friend who, despite every thing else, is still mourning the loss of her children.
I’ve spent my life leaning to the right of the wing. But I find myself becoming less rigid about my blacks and whites, rights and wrong, as I age.
I no longer believe in eye for eye, tooth for tooth. All it does is sow a seed of ugliness in your soul.
All too often those who are baying for blood can’t possibly know enough to be sure or are too ignorant to open their minds to doubt.
60 Minutes will conclude its broadcast on the case of Kathleen Folbigg next Sunday. We’ll bring you updates as they come.