A woman once branded “Australia’s worst female serial killer” has been pardoned after new evidence suggested she did not kill her four infant children.
Kathleen Folbigg spent 20 years in prison after a jury found she killed sons Caleb and Patrick and daughters Sarah and Laura over a decade.
But a recent inquiry heard scientists believe they may have died naturally.
The 55-year-old’s case has been described as one of Australia’s greatest miscarriages of justice.
Ms Folbigg, who has always maintained her innocence, was jailed for 25 years in 2003 for the murders of three of the children, and the manslaughter of her first son, Caleb.
Each child died suddenly between 1989 and 1999, aged between 19 days and 19 months, with prosecutors at her trial alleging she had smothered them.
Previous appeals and a separate 2019 inquiry into the case found no grounds for reasonable doubt, and gave greater weight to circumstantial evidence in Ms Folbigg’s original trial.
But at the fresh inquiry, headed by retired judge Tom Bathurst, prosecutors accepted that research on gene mutations had changed their understanding of the children’s deaths.
New South Wales (NSW) Attorney General Michael Daley on Monday announced that Mr Bathurst had come to the “firm view” there was reasonable doubt that Ms Folbigg was guilty of each offence.
As a result, the NSW governor had signed a full pardon, and ordered Ms Folbigg’s immediate release from prison.
“It has been a 20-year-long ordeal for her… I wish her peace,” Mr Daley said, adding his thoughts were also with Craig Folbigg, the children’s father.
At the 2022 inquiry Mr Folbigg’s lawyers pointed to the “fundamental implausibility” of four children from one family dying of natural causes under the age of two.
The unconditional pardon does not quash Ms Folbigg’s convictions, Mr Daley said. That would be a decision for the Court of Criminal Appeal, if Mr Bathurst chooses to refer the case to it – a process which could take up to a year.
If her convictions are overturned, she could then potentially sue the government for millions of dollars in compensation.
Alternatively, she could receive a settlement similar to that of Lindy Chamberlain, who was awarded $1.3m (£690,000, $US858,000) in 1992 for her wrongful conviction over the death of her daughter Azaria.
But some advocates say the case of Ms Chamberlain, imprisoned for three years, pales in comparison with Ms Folbigg’s.
“It is impossible to comprehend the injury that has been inflicted upon Kathleen Folbigg – the pain of losing her children [and] close to two decades locked away in maximum security prisons for crimes which science has proved never occurred,” said her lawyer, Rhanee Rego.
Ms Folbigg was met at prison gate by friends involved in the years-long campaign for her freedom, and Mr Daley appealed privacy so she can “move on with her life”.
Law must be more ‘science sensitive’
Ms Folbigg’s 2003 trial centred on circumstantial evidence, most notably diaries which expressed her struggles with motherhood.
But there was no physical evidence of smothering or injuries to the children presented to the trial.
At the recent inquiry, experts suggested the diaries were a coping mechanism written by a grieving mother with limited support, and that it would be unlikely all four children could be smothered without a trace.
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