Kathleen Folbigg says she has finally been able to sleep properly for the first time in 20 years. In 2003, she was jailed for killing her four children. Because of science and dedicated effort, she walks free today.

Australia’s worst mother:

The mother, cruelly dubbed “Australia’s worst mother,” found herself facing three charges of murdering her three children, Sarah, Patrick, and Laura, and manslaughter of her first son Caleb. All four infants were between the ages of 19 days and 18 months and died within a year between 1989 and 1999. When she called emergency services for a fourth time at her daughter Laura’s death, telling the ambulance operator, “My baby’s not breathing,” suspicion was cast onto her and her husband, and she was accused of smothering her children. 

From there on out, Kathleen Folbigg was subject to what has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in the Australian legal system. Her husband helped the police build a case against her, even handing in her personal diaries from which words were twisted to portray her as a vicious and unstable mother. Her father’s history of violence and murder was brought up as evidence against her, suggesting she was predisposed to violence, and she was convicted on all four charges, receiving a sentence of 40 years, which was later reduced to 30 on appeal.

Folbigg was in jail:

Two inquiries were carried out while Mrs. Folbigg was in jail. One of these was in 2019, which reaffirmed the validity of the original inconclusive evidence. The second one was last week, and its findings set her free. The inquiry was headed by a retired judge, Tom Bathurst, based on the findings of Professor Carola Vinuesa, an immunology and genomic medicine expert at Australian National University. 

Kathleen Folbigg

Carola and her team had been looking into the case since 2018 and were able to sequence Kathleen’s DNA to create a genetic map, revealing mutated genes that overturned the conclusions of the original case against Mrs. Folbigg.

They found a gene called CALM2 G114R in the mother and daughters, a gene known to cause cardiac abnormalities such as stopping the heart altogether. This, along with the fact that her daughters had a respiratory infection at the time of death, would explain the sudden infant deaths. In the sons, Caleb and Patrick, a gene mutation linked to sudden onset epilepsy was found. With the new scientific evidence, the likelihood of her children naturally dying as they did became much higher, enough to remove suspicion from their distraught mother.

Experts like Professor Emma Cuncliffe have pointed to the casual misogyny underlying the 2003 case against Kathleen Folbigg, where assumptions were made based on “thinly veiled stereotypes about women,” such as an emotional, irrational, and unstable nature. The controversial “Meadow’s Law” was also cited at the trial, stating:

“One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, three is murder until proven otherwise.”

This ‘law’ was often used to imprison innocent mothers for the murder of their children until it was removed from the English legal system, and it took a little longer to be discarded in the Australian courts. With Kathleen’s trial, it suddenly became the responsibility of the judge and jury to determine the essence of motherhood. 

Today, Kathleen has said she is “extremely grateful” and humbled by her pardon, and she spent her first night out eating pizza with her friends and sleeping in a real bed for the first time in 20 years. The woman known as the “baby killer” to an entire country is finally free from her shackles and harsh, unjust reputation, and it is the responsibility of the legal systems moving forward to ensure there are no more like her.

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