Zimbabwe News

Woman jailed over infant deaths acquitted

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 offense.

As a result, the NSW governor 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.

Some advocates say Ms. Folbigg’s case pales in comparison to Ms. Chamberlain’s – who was imprisoned for three years.

“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 the prison gate by friends involved in the years-long campaign for her freedom, and Mr. Daley appealed for privacy so she can “move on with her life”.

Ms. Folbigg’s 2003 trial centered on circumstantial evidence, most notably diaries that 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.

But the key evidence was from a team of immunologists who found Ms. Folbigg’s daughters, Sarah and Laura, shared a genetic mutation – called CALM2 G114R – that can cause sudden cardiac death.

Evidence was also uncovered that her sons, Caleb and Patrick, possessed a different genetic mutation, linked to sudden-onset epilepsy in mice.

Professor Carola Vinuesa, who led the research team from the Australian National University, said an unusual genetic sequence was immediately obvious in Ms. Folbigg’s DNA before the children’s samples were even tested.

“We did the first test and found a [gene] variant that looked very suspicious… even then in November 2018, we thought this [a] very high likelihood, if found in the children, to be the culprit,” she told the BBC.

Prof Vinuesa said there were only 134 known cases worldwide of the potentially deadly heart condition linked to the genetic mutation.

She described the decision to pardon Ms. Folbigg as a “beautiful moment” that could offer hope to other women in similar situations.

“We’ve been approached about women who have lost children, or who have been accused of inflicting harm, and the cases look as if they’re also children with severe genetic conditions,” she said.

The Australian Academy of Science says the case shows the need for reform that makes the legal system more “science sensitive”, a call echoed by Ms. Folbigg’s lawyer.

In other news – Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s daughter turns 2

The young royal, daughter of Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan, turned 2 years old on Sunday. As of publication, no official announcement from the royal family has been made.

The Princess of Sussex resides in California with her father Harry, mother Meghan, and brother Prince Archie of Sussex, 4. Harry and Meghan moved to the U.S. in 2020 after stepping down from their roles as working royals in January of that year. Learn More

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