Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome! & The Kathleen Folbigg Case

Kathleen Megan Folbigg, 37, is either Australia's worst female serial killer or her case is a serious miscarriage of justice in which an innocent mother has been wrongfully convicted of infanticide.

In the NSW Supreme Court on May 21, 2003 Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty of murdering her children Patrick, Sarah and Laura at Newcastle and Singleton between 1991 and 1999. She was also found guilty for the 1989 manslaughter of her firstborn Caleb and of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Patrick in 1990.

It took a jury comprising six men and six women just less than nine hours to reach its decision. Folbigg, who had pleaded not guilty to all charges, broke down in visible shock as the verdicts were read out. Justice Graham Barr sentenced her to 40 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 30 years.

At Sydney's Mulawa Women's Detention Centre, Folbigg was placed in protective custody for fear that other prisoners would kill or seriously injure her as a result of the convictions. "Rock spiders" (Australian prison jargon for child killers and child molesters) live a tenuous existence within the prison community because they are despised by both male and female mainstream populations. They require the security of segregation within protective custody for some degree of safety from other prisoners. Folbigg remains isolated in segregation whilst serving her sentence.

Kathleen Folbigg's tragic family history also gave significant impetus to the Crown's contention that she was capable of wilfully murdering her four children. Abandoned by her natural mother as an 18-month-old toddler Folbigg was raised in a succession of orphanages and foster homes after her father, Thomas John "Taffy" Britton murdered his estranged de facto.

Britton confronted Kathleen Mary Donavan outside her home in the Sydney suburb of Annandale on January 9, 1969 and stabbed her 24 times. They had been living in a de facto relationship that had produced 18-month-old Kathleen prior to Donovan leaving during November the previous year. Britton was convicted of murder and received a life sentence. He served 12 years before getting deported to the United Kingdom.

Kathleen was sent to a church orphanage where she remained until she was adopted by a foster family from the Newcastle suburb of Kotara. Raised as Kathleen Marlborough, she was an adult before she learned the truth about her parents. The impact of those events is evidenced by a diary entry dated October 14, 1996 in which Kathleen Folbigg wrote, "Obviously I am my father's daughter".

That diary entry, made after three of her children had already died, was seized upon as a circumstantial link to her guilt. Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC claimed the entry indicated Folbigg was a violent murderous person like her father and suffered from an attachment disorder that prevented her from bonding with her four children. Although the damning memoir was ruled prejudicial and not disclosed to the jury, other parts of the diary were used.

The court was told that Kathleen met Craig Folbigg and the pair married in 1987. Their first child was born February 1, 1989. Caleb was 19-days-old when Craig was awoken by Kathy's screams, "My baby, something is wrong with my baby!". Caleb was dead. His death was diagnosed as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

Eighteen months later Kathleen Folbigg gave birth to Patrick. He was four months old before history repeated itself but ambulance officers were able to revive the baby despite massive brain damage. Patrick lived another four months before he died. Doctor's diagnosed an epileptic fit as the cause of death.

October 14, 1992 the Folbigg's third child, Sarah, was born. Craig Folbigg testified that on the day Sarah died Kathleen had pinned the child to her in a bear hug while slapping her bottom. She then pushed the child onto him saying, "You f...king deal with her". Later that night he woke about 1.10am to find his wife and Sarah missing from their beds but went back to sleep. He was woken by Kathleen's screams. Sarah was motionless in her bed. SIDS was again diagnosed as the cause of death.

The Folbigg's fourth child, Laura, was born in August 1997 and survived for 19 months before she also died. After Laura's death the marriage collapsed and Kathleen left Craig and moved into a flat. After Kathleen left, Craig Folbigg found his wife's diary and handed it to police.

Kathleen denied any involvement in the deaths of her children but in April 2001 she was charged with four counts of murder and one count of inflicting grievous bodily harm.

The Crown successfully argued that Folbigg suffocated her four babies over a ten-year period, because she had a low threshold to stress and had resented their intrusion into her life, despite any conclusive evidence to support that theory. Tedeschi told the jury that Folbigg smothered her babies "in a flash of anger, hatred and resentment".

Folbigg's defence team retaliated to those accusations by claiming that 19-day-old Caleb, 8-month-old Patrick, 10-month-old Sarah and 19-month-old Laura all died from SIDS. They argued Caleb died from a floppy larynx, Patrick, an epileptic fit, Sarah, an inflamed uvula and Laura died of the heart disease myocarditis.

A panel of international experts disagreed and unanimously testified they had never heard of four children in the same family dying of SIDS. It was claimed the odds of it occurring within the same family was a staggering one in one trillion. Despite those odds a disturbing similarity has emerged between the Folbigg case and 258 similar British cases of infanticide where parents convicted of killing their children will have their cases re-opened.

The process began after the British Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of Angela Cannings on December 10, 2003.

Cannings was jailed for life in April 2002 for the murder of 7-week-old Jason in 1991 and 18-week-old Matthew in 1999. She denied murdering the boys claiming they were victims of SIDS. Her appeal was based on several factors but principally that the expert evidence relating to SIDS was misleading. She joins two other British women also freed after being accused of killing their children.

Sally Clark had been jailed for life for murdering her two baby sons but was cleared by the Court of Appeal in January 2004. A June 2004 jury at Reading Crown Court also cleared 35-year-old pharmacist, Trupti Patel, of murdering her 3 babies.

In Australia Kathleen Folbigg steadfastly maintains her innocence while her murder convictions continue to ignite speculation about what causes mothers to kill their own children. It is the inherent danger of miscarried justice that continues to exist while mystery and uncertainty surrounds SIDS and its possible causes.

Those inherent dangers are compounded if unexplained infant deaths result in authorities wrongly targeting innocent mothers, who have lost children to SIDS as evidenced by the recent British cases.

By Bernie Mathews posted 30 September 04


Experts in child abuse cases face inquiry
UK: The government launched an official inquiry into the quality of expert medical evidence in child abuse cases last Thursday, as the implications of the miscarriage of justice in the Angela Cannings case continued to perplex ministers.

Folbigg, convicted until proven innocent
Convicted August 2003 for the manslaughter of her eldest child Caleb, and the murder of her next three children, Patrick, Sarah and Laura. Disturbing similarities between the case of Kathleen Folbigg and that of Sally Clark (nb. Other Meadows cases Trupti Patel, Angela Cannings, Donna Anthony, Margaret Smith, Julie Ferris, Maxine Robinson) using "Meadows law" one cot death is tragic, two suspicious, three murder." The Attorney-General in England is reviewing more than 250 cases where a parent may have been wrongly convicted. In other words, Professor Meadows evidence has been totally discredited. There is a furore in England, but no mention in Australian press?

Cot deaths and justice
Did you kill your babies?' A whisper came from the crumpled figure in the dock: 'No.' The whisper grew louder: 'No, no.' It was as if we were witnessing torture in Reading Crown Court. It is hard to imagine a crueller inquisition than that which faced Trupti Patel: a mother loses three babies in cot death and then goes through the hell of being accused of murdering them.

Accused of abuse, but never tried
Parents have lost access to their children without a criminal trial. Mothers Sally Clark and Trupti Patel found themselves in the dock accused of murdering their babies partly on the strength of expert testimony by Sir Roy Meadows. But other families have been forcibly separated thanks to Sir Roy's testimony without police charges ever being brought.

Folbigg may have been innocent
On the other hand, some people simply lied or got it wrong because the system failed, The prosecution is not equal to the defence, professional opinions can be flawed and juries can determine the wrong evidence.

Cot Death Mothers: The Witch Hunt
John Sweeney investigates when mothers, grieving the loss of a child after cot death, are wrongly accused of murder.