Try to imagine your life being spread out, ripped
to pieces, examined, opinions cast, character assassinated,
your every word, action, thought,
doubted, and you’re told you don’t know yourself.
Add to that, because of all of the above becoming
the most HATED woman alive …You can’t. I now
live with that every day. I endure all of this knowing
that vindication will one day be mine. This is the last
time I’ll state – I did not kill my children
These are the words of Kathleen Folbigg, the Australian mother convicted in October 2003 of murdering her four children aged between 19 days and 19 months. These words are from an extract of a letter written to her foster sister from within the walls of Mulawa Women’s Prison in Sydney. The letter shows us a glimpse at the thoughts and feelings of a mother who maintains her innocence in the face of scathing and relentless public criticism.
Throughout her seven-week trial, Kathleen made front-page headlines in Australian newspapers and attracted the attention of the international community.
- Who could forget the haunting images? – the Sydney Morning Herald’s front-page life-size color pictures of Kathleen’s four dead children positioned under the heading “Dead by their mother’s hand”.
- Who could forget the statistics? That the odds of four babies dying of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the same family are “a staggering one in one trillion”.
- Who could forget the grieving husband and father.
Kathleen was portrayed, by the prosecution as a selfish woman who “was obsessed with herself – particularly with working out at the gym and going out. Prosecutor MarkTedeschi, QC, argued that Folbigg “was deeply resentful of the intrusion her children had on her life, in particular on her sleep, her ability to go to the gym, and her ability to socialise including going out dancing” and that “she resolved this by killing them. She was totally obsessed with her own needs, wants and desires”. Kathleen was labelled a “callous mother whose babies never stood a chance.
The most damning testimony came from her estranged husband, Craig Folbigg, who sat in court with his new fiancée. Craig told reporters how he “fell to pieces but Kathleen didn’t seem to after the death of their first son. Craig recounted how after the death of their second child “the world stopped for him, but Kathy just got on with it”.
After the death of their fourth child, Kathleen took steps to end her marriage. But her nightmare was only beginning.
Craig Folbigg found, and read, his wife’s diary in which she wrote her deepest and most personal thoughts. Reading what were essentially the fears and frustrations of a woman struggling to cope with the demands of motherhood, Craig believed that he had stumbled across enough evidence to incriminate his wife for the deaths of their children.
He gave the diary to the police. The prosecution case relied on the diary.
Defence counsel, Peter Zahra SC, accused Craig Folbigg of being “biased – downplaying favourable matters which probably took place, but putting a sinister edge on them”.
Craig admitted using his children’s deaths for sympathy so that he could sell more cars in his job at a car dealership.
In the letter to her foster sister, Folbigg argues that the use of her diaries to incriminate her was preposterous:
They’re mine, not yours, not anyone’s –
mine. What I was feeling and what I wrote
and all I’ll say is everyone has no right to
be so presumptuous as to know what I
meant or was saying. They are not literal
The defence argued that the prosecution’s focus on her diaries was a convenient excuse to pin blame on Kathleen.
Kathleen’s case bears a striking resemblance to that of British woman Sally Clark, who until February 2003 was serving a double life sentence for the murder of her two infant sons. Like Kathleen , Clark maintained that her children died from SIDS, a theory which was dismantled by the leading expert in the field who “told the jury that the chance of the babies dying naturally was 73 million to
one”. And, like Kathleen, Clark was portrayed as a coldhearted and selfish woman, unequipped to handle the demands of motherhood:
She was a selfish, alcoholic, grasping, depressive, career-obsessed woman who liked pretty clothes, and who first abused and then murdered her children because they ruined her figure and stood in the way of her lucrative future claimed the prosecution.
Clark was “vilified as a monstrous mother … at the time she was one of the most hated women in the country”. As with Kathleen’s case, the public asked “what sort of woman murders her own two babies?” Crown prosecutor Robin Spencer QC argued that a mother who was “suffering from alcoholism and depression, and who had reached the end of her tether”could murder her children. The prosecution demonized Clark, contending that her actions “struck at the very core of everything natural and wholesome in the relationship between mother and child”.
After serving more than three years in prison, and already suffering the disappointment of a first, unsuccessful appeal in 2000, Clark, who had always maintained her innocence, was finally vindicated when the Court of Appeal found that she had been wrongfully convicted. Two other British mothers’s Trupti Patel and Angela Cannings’ also had their convictions quashed by the court of Appeal. They had all been found guilty with the same misleading statistics and arguments that had convicted Kathleen. Namely “Meadows Law”.
Angela Cannings’ was given life imprisonment on April 16th, 2002 for the murder of seven-week-old Jason in 1991 and eighteen-week-old Matthew in 1999. As Kathleen had, Angela Canning’s’, claimed her sons died from SIDS. The British Court of Criminal Appeal overturned her conviction on December 10th, 2003 and she was free to return home. Angela Cannings’ appeal was based on a number of factors but mainly that the statistical evidence and expert medical testimony of Professor Sir Roy Meadow was deceptive and misleading. In Angela Cannings’ trial, the same statistical evidence as was used in Kathleen’s trial was used ie that the odds of SIDS occurring in the same family was an astounding one in one trillion. Following the quashing of Angela Cannings’ convictions, Roy Meadow’s was found guilty of “serious professional misconduct” by the British General Medical Council for his misleading “expert witness” statistics.
A further 258 similar cases in Britain were urgently ordered to be re-examined.
Today, more and more people are beginning to doubt Kathleen Folbigg’s guilt and the “expert medical” testimony that convicted her.
In a new book, Murder, Medicine & Motherhood, Emma Cunliffe, a professor of law in Canada, spent six years researching Kathleen Folbigg’s case. Emma Cunliffe believes that Kathleen was wrongly convicted based on unreliable evidence from medical experts. She argues that medical experts in the court trial neglected to give evidence that fully showed the then current uncertainty in the scientific and medical communities about repeated unexplained deaths of infants in a single family. Emma Cunliffe, is so convinced of Kathleen’s wrongful conviction she is calling on the NSW to introduce the same ”last resort” mechanism that was used in the Northern Territory to quash Lindy Chamberlain’s murder conviction. Emma Cunliffe says the medical uncertainty that existed at the time of Kathleen’s trial and the appeals had since moved to a consensus view: that repeated unexplained infant deaths in a single family can and do occur. She strongly believes that Kathleen conviction is unsound and should be reviewed. Dr Cunliffe’s opinions have won support from eminent forensic pathologists, who share her belief that a review of Kathleen Folbigg’s conviction should be examined. Professor John Hilton who was a prosecution witness in Kathleen’s trial believes that Dr Cunliffe book is a “valuable contribution to this whole matter and is deserving of notice by the relevant authorities.” Professor Stephen Cordner, the director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine says of Dr. Cunliffe’s book ”I think she’s written a very even-handed book based on substantial research and persuasively concludes … that Kathleen Folbigg has been wrongly convicted.”