Kathleen Folbigg was released from prison after spending 20 years behind bars after an inquiry found her children may have died from natural causes.
Ms Folbigg, 55, was convicted of three counts of murder and one of manslaughter in 2003 after her babies Patrick, Sarah, Laura and Caleb died in suspicious circumstances between 1989 and 1999.
She has always maintained her innocence and Tom Bathurst KC, who was tasked with leading the inquiry, found there was reasonable doubt over her convictions.
The decision prompted NSW Attorney-General Michael Daley to pardon Ms Folbigg on Monday with the 55-year-old released from jail.
In his report, Mr Bathurst said he held ‘a firm view that there was reasonable doubt as to the guilt of Ms Folbigg for each of the offences for which she was originally tried’.
The report said scientific advances showed there was a ‘reasonable possibility three of the children died of natural causes’ and that Mr Bathurst was ‘unable to accept… the proposition that Ms Folbigg was anything but a caring mother for her children’.
Kathleen Folbigg was released from prison after spending 20 years behind bars after an inquiry found her children may have died from natural causes
Caleb Folbigg is pictured. His mother Kathleen Folbigg has been cleared of his manslaughter
‘In the case of Sarah and Laura Folbigg, there is a reasonable possibility a genetic mutation known as CALM2-G114R occasioned their deaths,’ the findings said.
In relation to the death of the fourth child, Mr Bathurst found ‘the coincidence and tendency evidence which was central to the (2003) Crown case falls away’.
Key points from inquiry
There is a reasonable possibility that three of the children died of natural causes
In the case of Sarah and Laura Folbigg, there is a reasonable possibility a genetic mutation known as CALM2-G114R caused their deaths
Tom Bathurst KC was ‘unable to accept… the proposition that Ms Folbigg was anything but a caring mother for her children’
In relation to the death of a fourth child, Mr Bathurst found ‘the coincidence and tendency evidence which was central to the (2003) Crown case falls away’
In relation to Ms Folbigg’s diary entries, evidence suggests they were the writings of a grieving and possibly depressed mother, blaming herself for the death of each child, as distinct from admissions that she murdered or otherwise harmed them
The former NSW chief justice also addressed what Ms Folbigg had written in her diary, which had previously been used against her.
‘Evidence suggests they were the writings of a grieving and possibly depressed mother, blaming herself for the death of each child, as distinct from admissions that she murdered or otherwise harmed them,’ he found.
The inquiry in February heard evidence from experts about scientific developments that could potentially prove some of her babies died of natural causes linked to a genetic mutation.
This genetic mutation was not discovered by medical scientists until years after the deaths, and would not have been investigated at the time, the inquiry was told.
A 2021 scientific report suggested at least the deaths of Laura, who died at 18 months, and her older sister Sarah, who previously died at 10 months, were linked to a rare genetic variant.
During the inquiry, medical experts discussed the possibility that Laura and Sarah had the rare genetic mutations CALM2G114R, which is linked to long QT syndrome, a heart-signalling disorder that can cause fast, chaotic heartbeats or arrhythmias.
The inquiry was also told the girls’ deaths might be linked to catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT), a condition characterised by an abnormal heart rhythm or arrhythmia.
Professor Carola Vinuesa told the inquiry that she had contributed research on the rare mutation CALM2G114R and hypothesised that the four Folbigg children most likely died from some form of cardiac arrest that led to unexplained deaths.
She told the inquiry that Sarah and Laura had this variant and the Folbigg boys also died from similar issues relating to the sudden unexplained deaths.
However, the inquiry did hear from others who dismissed the genetic mutation theory.
Cardiovascular genetics expert Dominic Abrams told the inquiry it was ‘unlikely’ Laura and Sarah died from the mutation and that there was a lack of evidence proving their exact cause of death.
‘Whilst a cardiac arrhythmia related to the calmodulin variant cannot be definitely excluded, I believe the likelihood this was responsible for the deaths of Laura and Sarah is low,’ he wrote in a report tendered to the inquiry.
Patrick Folbigg is pictured. His mother Kathleen has been cleared of murdering him
‘There is no compelling evidence to support any … environmental triggers as clear factors that may have increased arrhythmia susceptibility.’
Dr Matthew Orde told the inquiry he had analysed records of Laura’s heart tissue, known as slides, to determine if myocarditis, commonly known as inflammation of the heart, had caused her death.
He said the slides he assessed showed clear signs myocarditis was present and was the likely cause of death, but from a forensic pathologist’s perspective, he would need to look at the ‘big picture’.
‘In my experience as a forensic expert, the extent of degree of inflammation in Laura’s heart slides creates a very compelling contention for the cause of death,’ Dr Orde said.
‘All I’m trying to draw attention to is, on the basis on the slides, I see a potential cause of death, but I can’t exclude other factors having contributed.’
The inquiry was told both Patrick and Caleb most likely did not carry the same variant their sisters shared.
Their cause of death was more difficult to determine as neither boy shared any similarities other than their sudden unexplained deaths.
An autopsy on Patrick found his cause of death to be an acute asphyxiating event resulting from an epileptic seizure.
The inquiry was told Patrick had been taken to hospital on October 18, 1990, after his parents had found him struggling to breathe.
Laura Folbigg is pictured. Her mother Kathleen has been freed and pardoned 20 years after she was jailed for murdering three of her children, including Laura
Kathleen Folbigg has been freed and pardoned 20 years after she was jailed for murdering three of her babies, including Laura (pictured)
The then four-month-old boy was also reportedly blue in colour when he was rushed to hospital.
Neurologist and federal independent MP Monique Ryan told the inquiry that Patrick’s sudden death could have been linked to a brain injury he suffered during this medical episode.
Dr Ryan said it was most likely around October 1990 that Patrick had his first seizure.
‘He had an uncontrolled epileptic seizure and more likely than not caused his death,’ she told the inquiry.
‘Sometimes when babies have seizures they can be relatively subtle, but they (the parents) would recognise the babies were having unusual events even if they didn’t recognise them to be a seizure.’
However, Dr Ryan said she questioned whether the seizures had brought on a brain injury linked to lack of oxygen that ultimately caused Patrick’s death because of how quickly he initially recovered.
‘The baby’s eyes were open, he appeared awake, but he was less responsive than usual and the fact that he was only responsive to painful stimuli indicates how unresponsive he was,’ Dr Ryan said.
‘If a baby’s had a severe brain injury related to breathing problems … for it to be severe enough … I would have expected he wouldn’t have recovered as quickly as he did.’
Patrick had begun to respond to medical attention within 15 minutes of attending hospital on October 18, 1990, the inquiry was told.
‘He was behaving more normally, which would be inconsistent with a severe hypoxic brain injury,’ Dr Ryan said.
‘The kidneys and the heart would show signs of hypoxic brain injury as well.
‘The blood tests done initially which were limited were relatively benign.
‘He wasn’t sent to intensive care, which all argues against an acute severe hypoxic brain injury at that time.’
She said while his seizure was a ‘fairly significant one’, Patrick didn’t continue to display typical behaviour for a child with ongoing issues relating to the brain injury.
Kathleen Folbigg holds one of her diaries while appearing via video link screened at the New South Wales Coroners Court in Sydney, April 29, 2019
Dr Ryan said this could be the result of a diagnosed genetic disorder scientists hadn’t discovered yet.
She said another possibility was Patrick’s death could be related to ‘stroke-like episodes’, linked to energy failures within the brain.
‘It was pretty clear something happened on the 18th of October which was fairly profound, before that date Patrick Folbigg was felt to be normal,’ she said.
‘He was not neurologically normal (after October 18) … there has to have been some sort of brain injury at or around that time.
‘I think it’s more likely he had an underlying condition that manifested on that date.’
The inquiry heard evidence from medical experts that genetic science was a fairly new field, with discoveries being made every day about new mutations.
‘The fact a definitive abnormality wasn’t found on Patrick’s genetic testing does not to me indicate it wasn’t a genetic disorder,’ Dr Ryan told the inquiry.
‘If he was born today and we did a whole genome sequencing … and it was negative, we would just have to wait and see. We’d do it every five years.
‘Unfortunately, he died without a definitive diagnosis. Unfortunately, these sorts of things happen.’
Dr Ryan said she had patients under her care where she had made a diagnosis ‘long after’ their deaths.
‘It’s very often we don’t have sufficient timeframes within a baby’s life that we have time to make a sufficient diagnosis,’ she said.
The eldest of the four siblings, Caleb died at 19 days old in Newcastle, NSW.
However, the inquiry was unable to determine the cause of his death.
The Crown’s case in 2003 had relied on circumstantial evidence after the four post-mortems failed to determine what caused the children’s deaths.
But prosecutors pursued the allegation, which ultimately turned into a conviction, that Ms Folbigg had smothered her four children, including Caleb.
The NSW Attorney-General Michael Daley (pictured) welcomed Ms Folbigg’s release
The NSW Attorney-General welcomed Ms Folbigg’s release on Monday.
‘The result today is confirmation that our judicial system is capable of delivering justice, and demonstrates that the rule of law is an important underpinning of our democratic system,’ Mr Daley said.
‘Given all that has happened over the last 20 years, it is impossible not feel sympathy for Kathleen and Craig Folbigg.
‘I am glad that our legal system in NSW contains provisions that allow for the continual pursuit of truth and justice.’