real life

'My friend is in jail for murdering her children'

Alana and Kathleen

by ALANA HOUSE

I went to school with Kathleen Folbigg. She was Kathy Marlborough back then. She’s probably the most famous person to attend my high school. She’s definitely the most infamous.

That’s because she’s serving 30 years behind bars for murdering her four children.

Her first baby, Caleb, lived 19 days. Her second baby, Patrick, lived eight months. Her third baby, Sarah, lived 10 months. Her fourth baby, Laura, lived 19 months. The first three deaths were initially labelled cot deaths. Then when Laura died, the police opened a murder investigation.

Kathy’s trial had shades of Lindy Chamberlain to it. She was accused of being cold, not showing enough emotion. Like Lindy Chamberlain, people decided she was guilty before the trial even started. Unlike Lindy Chamberlain, most people still hold that opinion.

Kathy has been in jail for 10 years now. That’s 3650 days behind bars, with another 5475 days still to serve. A mind-numbing monotony only relieved by the occasional two-hour weekend visit from a friend or the Salvos.

I started writing to Kathy in jail. Eventually I began visiting her too. And we became friends.

Last year, Kathy sent me a book: Murder, Medicine & Motherhood, written by a Canadian legal academic called Emma Cunliffe. Cunliffe spent six years researching Kathy’s case and concluded she shouldn’t have been found guilty based on the evidence presented in court. It makes compelling reading.

Cunliffe, to her credit, hasn’t stopped at writing a book about Kathy’s case. She’s speaking to barristers and law firms, searching for experts prepared to work pro-bono to fight for Kathy’s case to be reopened.

In addition to the points Cunliffe raises in her book, there have been calls for a review of all successful cases – including Kathy’s – run by Crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi, following criticism of his handling of the Gordon Wood case.

And new research has suggested a link between SIDS and beta-casomorphin-7 (BCM-7) – an ingredient contained in the infant formula Kathy fed her babies.

Since the release of Cunliffe’s book, I’ve seen a faint glimmer of hope in Kathy’s eyes when we meet. I’m ashamed to say I only visit her three or four times a year, despite the jail being only 45 minutes away. I should go more often but life and family commitments seem to get in the way.

Prison is such a depressing place, it’s easy to avoid. When I do visit, I spend a few hours perched uncomfortably on a bolted-down metal stool chatting to someone who becomes more institutionalised with each passing year. A woman whose life has been reduced to a shared cell, television, $18 a week pay for performing “gardening duties” and handful of books.

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OK, it can be pretty pervy visiting a prison too.

The first time I went, I was terrified. I half-expected to be knifed in the carpark. But everyone there is so anxious about losing their visiting rights that bad behaviour is virtually non-existence. Visitors are unfailingly polite, friendly and accommodating, despite the ridiculous hoops the prison system puts them through.

There’s much faffing about before visits begin. Eyeballs are photographed, bodies are scanned and digits are fingerprinted. Occasionally, sniffer dogs even give you the once over. Earlier this year I stood in the queue behind a woman who was wearing fuzzy bed socks and having a loud conversation that went something like this…

I told em, look, my daughter’s in jail for [email protected]#kin’ murder. I don’t feel like doing [email protected]#kin’ jury right now. And they got straight back to me that I didn’t have to [email protected]#kin’ do it … It wasn’t [email protected]#kin’ murder, though, it was [email protected]#kin’ manslaughter. She’d been comin’ after her for ages. It was [email protected]#kin’ self-defence. She came at her again, so she [email protected]#kin’ knifed her in the arm…”

Another bloke in the queue speculated: “Must’ve hit a vein.” And fuzzy bed sock woman replied, “If it was me, I would’ve just stood there and watched her [email protected]#kin’ bleed out.”

That might have freaked me out a few years ago but these days I just edge closer so I can hear better.

Murder, manslaughter, indecent assault, drug-related crimes… women are in prison for some pretty heavy stuff. And they’re sitting just metres away when you finally enter the visiting room. If you’re Kathy, they’re probably sharing your cell or wing when visiting hours are over.

I’ve been constantly amazed by Kathy’s positivity, even before Emma Cunliffe started championing her cause. If I was locked away for 10 years with another 15 to serve, I’d be a gibbering mess. Kathy stays strong. Kathy believes in her innocence. Kathy has bunkered down to serve her time with as little drama as possible.

Each time I leave the prison, I shudder and think: “Imagine losing four kids to cot death, being found guilty of their murder and sent to jail.” It’s the stuff of nightmares. But it does happen.

People are wrongly convicted all the time. In Kathy’s case, I think there’s reasonable doubt. You don’t throw away the key when there’s reasonable doubt. You make sure an innocent woman isn’t behind bars. Don’t you?

Alana House is a blogger, mum and chook enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter (erratically) at twitter.com/AlanaHouse and visit her  blog at housegoeshome.com

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