Spanish scientist helps free Australia’s ‘worst female killer’

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Kathleen Folbigg spent twenty years in prison being demonized for killing her four children, until a Spanish scientist helped free her and exposed one of Australia’s greatest injustices.

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An Australian woman who spent 20 years in prison for killing her four children was pardoned and released on Monday following an inquest into her guilt.

Kathleen Folbigg, now 55, has been dubbed ‘Australia’s worst serial killer’ after being convicted in 2003 of the murders of three of her children and convicted of manslaughter in the death of the fourth.

According to prosecutors, her children, aged between nine weeks and three years, had been suffocated to death by Folbigg, who has consistently denied these allegations, claiming that each of their deaths was related to a natural cause.

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A pardon on the basis of reasonable doubt was seen as the quickest way to secure his release from prison: a subsequent inquest could see his convictions overturned entirely.

Kathleen Folbigg spent her two decades in prison being demonized.

Once the most reviled name in Australia, Folbigg was cleared thanks in part to Spanish scientist Carola Garca Vinuesa, who, along with other colleagues, managed to prove that the children may have died of natural causes.

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“The theory that she killed her children had no proof. The only proof was circumstantial, because she was the one who found them dead,” Vinuesa told Euronews.

“Folbigg is very grateful, not only to us – the scientists – but also to her lawyers, who have done most of the work for free,” he adds.

“Australia’s Most Notorious Killer”

The first to die was her 19-day-old son Caleb. One night, Kathleen woke up because she needed to go to the bathroom. She checked on her baby and noticed she was not breathing.

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“There’s something wrong with my baby,” she squealed. Her husband rushed over and they tried to revive the baby, but by the time the ambulance arrived he was already dead.

After this she lost Patrick when the baby was only eight months old. Ten-month-old Sarah and 18-month-old Laura died later. Two of the babies had died of sudden infant death syndrome. The trauma was enormous, so the relationship between Folbigg and her husband deteriorated and the couple decided to divorce.

Years later, her ex-husband found Folbigg’s personal diary. Some of the lines his ex-wife had written set off alarm bells, like when she wrote that her daughter Sarah had “gone off with a little help.” He was so shocked that he gave the diaries to the police.

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Although there was no evidence against her at the time, much weight was given to the “Meadow’s law” theory of sudden infant death, which has now been discredited.

British pediatrician Roy Meadow believed that one sudden death was a tragedy, two suspects and three homicide until proven otherwise. His theories of him have since been largely debunked and he has been struck off the UK medical register for several years.

How did a Spanish scientist get involved in the case?

In Australia, the jury convicted Folbigg of smothering her four children, but has always maintained her innocence.

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No one believed her story until Vinuesa decided to help her.

The Spanish scientist had never heard of Folbigg’s case until one afternoon when she received a call from a former student.

David Wallace, who did his thesis with Vinuesa’s research team, was watching a television program when Folbigg appeared on the screen.

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Wallace, who had also studied law, had his doubts and wanted the scientist’s opinion.

“He called more researchers, but the rest must not have been interested. I was really surprised when I learned about the case,” says the Spaniard, whose team had pioneered human genome sequencing.

“Two of Folbigg’s children had been very ill before they died and that really made me question the case, so I contacted Folbigg’s lawyers to tell them that genetic research was worth doing,” he adds.

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Genetic research

The researcher knew that up to 35% of cases of sudden death can be explained by genetic factors, and with this in mind, Vinuesa called his colleague, geneticist Todor Arsov.

They set out to compile a list of genes that can cause sudden death.

The next step in their scientific investigation was to visit Folbigg in prison and sequence his genome.

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“We found that there was a mutation in a gene that codes for calmodulin, and this is one of the best-known causes of sudden childhood death,” Vinuesa tells Euronews.

“I wrote to Kathleen’s lawyers and told them that we had found this mutation. We wanted to do a complete cardiovascular work. We also needed to sequence the genomes of the children and the fathers,” he adds.

In 2018, a petition raising questions about some of the evidence presented at the Folbiggs trial led to the first of two inquests into the Folbiggs case. Two teams of immunologists-geneticists were called.

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Vinuesa’s team found a genetic mutation in two of Folbigg’s daughters, while the other two children suffered from severe epilepsy and breathing difficulties.

They contacted Peter Schwartz, one of the most famous geneticists in the world, who works at the Istituto Auxologico in Milan. He had just studied a similar case and, after analyzing the information, agreed that it was the most likely cause of the children’s deaths.

According to the Australian press, the judge decided he preferred diary evidence and said he did not need a psychiatrist to explain his mother’s diary entries.

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He also sided with the arguments presented by the prosecution’s team of immunologists.

At the original trial, the jury never had access to Folbigg’s complete diaries, only excerpts taken out of context in the aftermath of his children’s deaths.

“Those notes weren’t a confession, he just said he felt guilty. In this latest inquiry into the Folbiggs case, nine experts – forensic experts, psychiatrists, linguists – analyzed it and agreed they were utterances from a grieving mother and did not contain an admission of criminal guilt,” says Vinuesa.

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Fight for Folbigg’s release

Speaking of the personal toll, Vinuesa says she had to deal with the frustration she felt when the court didn’t understand the science.

Despite the initial verdict, Vinuesa and his colleagues published their findings and asked the Australian Academy of Sciences to back the science. “As all legal avenues had been exhausted, they petitioned the Governor of New South Wales. They asked for his pardon.

This petition was signed by 90 scientists and medical experts from around the world, including two Nobel laureates.

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At first Folbigg’s freedom was not an option, but this letter changed the social climate and improved his prison life. “Her colleagues, who bullied her because she was a child killer, changed their attitude and helped her,” she says.

In May 2022, the governor made his decision: there would be no pardon for Folbigg, but announced a new review of the case.

This time they had more support. ‘The Australian Academy of Sciences got legal representation and a team of lawyers who could advise who were the best experts in the world in each field. Also what kind of questions they should ask these experts.’

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“He’s making sure the system is fair and can be evaluated transparently.”

After Folbiggs’ pardon, Vinuesa finally feels satisfied, but looks back with a bittersweet feeling.

“Scientifically it was a challenge. It was a very hard, intense and sometimes painful process.”

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