Australian mother freed from prison after 20 years due to doubt she killed her 4 children

An Australian woman who spent 20 years in prison was pardoned and released Monday based on new scientific evidence that her four children died by natural causes as she had insisted.

The pardon was seen as the quickest way of getting Kathleen Folbigg out of prison, and a final report from the second inquiry into her guilt could recommend the state Court of Appeals quash her convictions.

Folbigg, now 55, was released from a prison in Grafton, New South Wales state, following an unconditional pardon by Gov. Margaret Beazley.

Australian state governors are figureheads who act on instructions of governments. New South Wales Attorney General Michael Daley said former justice Tom Bathurst had advised him last week there was reasonable doubt about Folbigg’s guilt based on new scientific evidence that the deaths could have been from natural causes.

‘There is reasonable doubt’

“There is a reasonable doubt as to Ms. Folbigg’s guilt of the manslaughter of her child Caleb, the infliction of grievous bodily harm on her child Patrick and the murder of her children Patrick, Sarah and Laura,” Daley told reporters.

“I have reached a view that there is reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Ms. Folbigg of those offences.”

Bathurst has conducted the second inquiry into Folbigg’s guilt, initiated by a petition that said it was “based on significant positive evidence of natural causes of death” and signed by 90 scientists, medical practitioners and related professionals.

Daley addresses a news conference in Sydney on Monday. (Joel Carrett/AAP Image/The Associated Press)

Prosecutors acknowledged to his inquiry in April that there was reasonable doubt about her guilt.

Folbigg was serving a 30-year prison sentence that was to expire in 2033. She would have become eligible for parole in 2028.

The children died separately over a decade, at between 19 days and 19 months old.

Rare genetic variant

Her first child, Caleb, was born in 1989 and died 19 days later in what a jury determined to be the lesser crime of manslaughter. Her second child, Patrick, was eight months old when he died in 1991. Two years later, Sarah died at 10 months. In 1999, Folbigg’s fourth child, Laura, died at 19 months.

A standing woman looks toward the ground.
Folbigg walks into the New South Wales Supreme Court in Sydney in May 2003. (David Gray/Reuters)

Evidence discovered in 2018 that both daughters carried a rare CALM2 genetic variant was one of the reasons that the inquiry was called.

Lawyer Sophie Callan said expert evidence in the fields of cardiology and genetics indicated that the CALM2-G114R genetic variant “is a reasonably possible cause” of the daughters’ sudden deaths.

Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, was also a “reasonably possible cause” of Laura’s death, Callan said.

For Patrick, Callan said there was “persuasive expert evidence that as a matter of reasonable possibility, an underlying neurogenetic disorder” caused his sudden death.

The scientific evidence created doubt that Folbigg killed the three children and undermined the argument made in Caleb’s case that four child deaths were an improbable coincidence, Callan said.

Jury told coincidence unlikely

Prosecutors had told the jury at her trial that the similarities among the deaths made coincidence an unlikely explanation.

Folbigg was the only one at home or awake when the young children died. She said she discovered three of the deaths during trips to the bathroom and one while checking on a child’s well-being.

Prosecutors also had told the jury that Folbigg’s diaries contained admissions of guilt.

A book with lined pages filled with handwriting and replete with bookmarks lies on a table, along with photographs, a cassette tape and a cardboard box. Three of the items appear notarized with a green card.
Evidence including a diary belonging to Folbigg is displayed on a table in Sydney in 2003. (Dean Lewins/AAP Image/The Associated Press)

Her former husband, Craig Folbigg, said in submissions to the inquiry that the implausibility that four children in one family would die of natural causes before the age of two was compelling grounds to continue treating the diary entries as admissions of his former wife’s guilt.

But Callan said psychologists and psychiatrists gave evidence that it would be “unreliable to interpret the entries in this way.”

Folbigg had been suffering a major depressive disorder and “maternal grief” when she made the entries, Callan said.

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