Ninety leading scientific experts are calling for the pardon of a woman dubbed Australia’s worst female serial killer in light of new scientific insights.
In October 2003, Kathleen Folbigg was sentenced to 40 years in prison after being found guilty of murdering her three infant children — Patrick Allen, Sarah Kathleen, and Laura Elizabeth — as well as the manslaughter of her fourth child — Caleb Gibson. The prosecution alleged Folbigg murdered her four young children over a 10 year period between 1989 and 1999 by smothering them during periods of frustration. Now 53 years old, she remains incarcerated but has always protested her innocence, claiming her children died of natural causes.
In recent years, a number of appeals and investigations have started to throw doubt on the court’s judgment. This week, 90 top scientists and medical practitioners from around the world, including two Nobel laureates, have signed a petition asking the Governor of New South Wales for the pardon and release of Folbigg.
The petition centers around a key discovery that’s come about in the past few years: a rare mutation in a gene known as CALM2. In October 2018, the genomes of the Folbigg children were sequenced and it was revealed that the two girls, Sarah and Laura, had the CALM2 gene variant. As previous research into the children's deaths has indicated, the variant of the CALM2 gene affects the way calcium binds to cardiac cells and has been linked to heart arrhythmia, as well as sudden cardiac death. The petition explains that the deaths of the children could be explained by lethal cardiac arrhythmia, a problem with the heart’s rhythm, caused by a mutation to the CALM2 gene.
"Mutations in this gene are one of the best-recognized causes of sudden death in infancy and children," the petition reads.
Furthermore, the autopsy of Laura’s body showed clear evidence of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart).
The prosecution of Folbigg hinged on the argument that four infant deaths was beyond coincidental; no amount of bad luck could possibly explain this. However, based on the new information surrounding the CALM2 variants and the genomic evidence from the children, the petition posits there is reasonable doubt that Folbigg was responsible for the deaths because the evidence is circumstantial and the deaths could have been from natural causes.
“Based on evidence presented to the inquiry and the fresh scientific evidence obtained by the international group of experts that studied the CALM2 mutation, a reasonable person should have doubts about Ms Folbigg killing her four children,” it adds. "Deciding otherwise rejects medical science and the law that sets the standard of proof."
The case for Folbigg's innocence may go even deeper. Professor Carola Vinuesa, one of the signatories from the Australian National University, recently explained that their re-analysis of the genomes has also found the two boys, Caeleb and Patrick, had two different novel and rare variants in a gene known as BSN. This gene variant in mice causes them to die young from epileptic fits. The team is currently looking into whether the variants found in the Folbigg boys have a similar effect in humans.
"This petition shows the important role that the new tool of whole genome sequencing can provide for the legal system," said Dr Lisa Eckstein, a senior lecturer from the Faculty of Law in the College of Arts, Law, and Education at the University of Tasmania, commenting on the new petition.
"The eminence of the scientists who have signed the petition, as well as the peer-reviewed nature of the publishing journal, speaks to the quality of the data that has been generated. In my mind, this should be adequate to reassert the presumption of innocence."