Kathleen Folbigg Was Convicted Of Killing Her Kids — But Did She?

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Fairfax Media/Getty/Scary Mommy

CW: child loss

There is no loss more unfathomable to a parent than the loss of a child. Kathleen Folbigg, an Australian mother, lost all four of hers, one after the other over a ten-year period, when they were just babies. In 2003, Folbigg was convicted of having murdered all four of her children — even though the first three deaths had previously been ruled as cases of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Recently, however, 90 scientists have joined together to submit a petition to the governor of South Wales to pardon Folbigg. That’s because new scientific evidence has emerged that scientists believe throws significant doubt on her conviction. Folbigg may have been wrongfully imprisoned all this time.

A Timeline Of Horrific Loss

Kathleen Folbigg married Craig Folbigg in 1987 at age 20, and in early 1989 gave birth to the couple’s first child, a boy they named Caleb. Caleb died at only 19 days old, with the cause of death listed on the death certificate as SIDS.

Folbigg became pregnant again less than a year later. According to court records, the couple bought new bedding and carefully prepared the baby’s room to reduce a chance of a recurrence of SIDS. Patrick was born on June 3, 1990, and at a week and a half old underwent a sleep study and several other tests which revealed nothing out of the ordinary.

When he was four months old, Patrick had an ALTE, or apparent life-threatening event, suffering brain damage, visual impairment, and seizures. Patrick had more seizures and another hospital admission the next month as well, and then, in February of 1990, at eight months old, Patrick died too. An autopsy diagnosed Patrick with an encephalopathic disorder (brain damage) that led to intractable seizures, and cardiac arrest.

Kathleen Folbigg became extremely depressed after Patrick’s death, and the couple sold their house and moved, and tried to get on with life, though Kathleen was convinced she was “not a good person.” She eventually became pregnant again, and with this pregnancy was a perfectionist with her diet and exercise, ostensibly to prevent another loss.

The couple’s daughter Sarah was born in October of 1992, and a sleep study performed again, which again came out normal. Kathleen struggled to bond with Sarah for the first six months because she was terrified of losing her. The couple’s marriage was under stress too, with Kathleen frustrated that Craig wasn’t doing enough, and Craig reporting that Kathleen was “growling” at Sarah when she got frustrated and that Kathleen “threw” Sarah at Craig, telling him, “you fucking deal with her” and storming away. Sarah died in August of 1993, at just 10 months old, with the cause of death listed as SIDS.

The couple struggled immensely after the death of their third child, with Craig becoming severely depressed, another move, and several separations. They worked on their marriage, though, and Kathleen became pregnant again and gave birth to Laura in August of 1997. Laura underwent a series of tests in addition to the sleep apnea test, all of which came out normal. Laura also had a home cardiorespiratory monitoring device to record breathing and heart rate during her sleep.

Kathleen was beginning to have hope to have a future with Laura, but the Folbiggs’ relationship was crumbling and the marriage about to end, according to both Craig and Kathleen. Craig Folbigg also later reported that Kathleen was rough with Laura, losing her patience, and at least once witnessing Kathleen pinning down the baby’s arms to feed her.

Laura died in March of 1999 at 18 months old. The cause of death was listed as “undetermined.” An autopsy report also revealed she had myocarditis, an inflammation of muscular tissue in the heart, but that this was an incidental finding, not cause of death.

After a period of interviews, searches of the Folbigg home, and the submission of Kathleen’s diary by Craig Folbigg to police, in April of 2001, Ms. Folbigg was arrested and charged with four counts of murder. She was convicted in 2003 and since then has been in prison.

The New DNA Evidence

As damning as the circumstantial evidence appears, Kathleen Folbigg has always protested her innocence. Now, science may support her claims. Scientists recently discovered a genetic mutation in Kathleen Folbigg and her two daughters, called CALM2 and G114R, which could have led to both girls’ deaths.

These mutations are extremely rare, but when present can cause heart problems in babies and young children, making them highly susceptible to SIDS. Moreover, both girls’ deaths were precipitated by infections that may have exacerbated an already existing issue.

The two boys, Caleb and Patrick, also apparently had rare genetic mutations, called BSN, or “bassoon genes.” Less is known about the potential impact of these mutations, and research is ongoing. But so far, what is known about the BSN genes is that when this gene is defective in mice, they can die during epileptic fits. Remember from above that Patrick suffered from seizures prior to his death.

These findings are what have prompted the 90 scientists to submit the petition to pardon Folbigg. “It is deeply concerning that medical and scientific evidence has been ignored in preference of circumstantial evidence,” said Professor Fiona Stanley, a scientist who works in child health, said in a statement at the time of the petition. “We now have an alternative explanation for the death of the Folbigg children.”

Folbigg’s Diary Entries Continue To Incriminate Her

The judges in the case point to multiple circumstantial coincidences that, taken altogether, can no longer be viewed as coincidences. And then there are Kathleen Folbigg’s diary entries.

Here are a number of the diary entries admitted as evidence:

June 3, 1990

This was the day that Patrick Allan David Folbigg was born. I had mixed feelings this day wether [sic] or not I was going to cope as a mother or wether [sic] I was going to get stressed out like I did last time. I often regret Caleb & Patrick, only because your life changes so much, and maybe I’m not a person that likes change. But we will see?

June 18, 1996

I’m ready this time and I’ll have help & support this time. When I think I’m going to loose [sic] control like last times, I’ll just hand baby over to someone else.

October 14, 1996

Obviously I’m my father’s daughter. But I think losing my temper stage and being frustrated with everything has passed. (Note: Kathleen Folbigg’s father was abusive and was convicted of stabbing her mother to death when Kathleen was 18 months old.)

December 4, 1996

I’m ready this time. But have already decided if I get any feelings of jealousy or anger to [sic] much I will leave Craig & baby, rather than answer being as before… That will be when I will ask help & sleep whenever I can. To keep myself in a decent mood. I know now that battling wills and sleep depravaision [sic] were the causes last time.

January 1, 1997

But I feel confident about it all going well this time. I am going to call for help this time & not attempt to do everything myself anymore. I know that that was the main reason for all my stress before & stress made me do terrible things.

August 25, 1997

Scary feelings, I’ve realised I actually love her & have bonded with her, wish to protect her etc. Maternal instinct, is what they call it. I now know I never had it with the others. Monitor is a good idea. Nothing can happen without the monitor knowing & since I’m not game enough to not plug it in, because they’d want to know why I hadn’t. Everything will be fine this time.

October 25, 1997

Sarah was boyish looking. Laura has definite feminine features, they are chalk & cheese. And truthfully just as well. Wouldn’t of handled another one like Sarah. She saved her life by being different.

November 3, 1997

Lost it with her earlier. Left her crying in our bedroom & had to walk out – that feeling was happening. And I think it was because I had to clear my head & priotise [sic]. As I’ve done in here now. I love her I really do I don’t want anything to happen.

December 31, 1997

Getting Laura to be next year ought to be fun, She’ll realise a Party is going on. And that will be it. Wonder if the battle of the wills will start with her & I then. We’ll actually get to see. She’s a fairly good natured baby-Thank goodness, it has saved her from the fate of her siblings. I think she was warned.

January 28, 1998

I feel like the worst mother on this earth, scared that she will leave me now, like Sarah did. I knew I was short tempered and cruel sometimes to her and she left, with a bit of help. I don’t want that to ever happen again. I actually seem to have a bond with Laura. It can’t happen again. I’m ashamed of myself.

The justice inquiry regarding the diary entries notes that the entries should be read with an understanding that a mother who had lost children due to “natural unexplained causes” might still blame herself for those deaths. But, taken together with other circumstantial evidence and their assertion of the extreme unlikeliness of this kind of death happening four times in a row, judges involved in the case have looked at the diary entries as being a major factor in ruling out reasonable doubt.

Reasonable Doubt

Kathleen and Craig had a rocky marriage. A reading of the court transcripts reveals Craig didn’t help Kathleen with any of the childcare, leaving her sleep-deprived and stressed in a way that might lead her to have angry thoughts — the kinds of thoughts a person would only write in their diary. Are Kathleen Folbigg’s diary entries merely the unleashing of normal dark thoughts we all have but never say aloud? A place to confess her greatest fears? Or are they admissions of guilt?

And now there is this new scientific evidence. The scientists who signed the petition believe the new DNA evidence is at least enough to warrant a reopening an appeal in which the science behind these new revelations will be given more weight. The state’s attorney general is currently considering the petition.

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