On New Year’s Day this year, there was an attack in the high-security women’s wing of Australia’s biggest prison. An inmate busted into a cell where another prisoner, with tired, hazel eyes and greying hair, was lying on her bunk, resting. After 18 years in protective custody, Kathleen Folbigg was being integrated in with the main population at the Clarence Correctional Centre, and some of her new cellmates were not happy about sharing their quarters with a convicted baby killer. The inmate seized Kathleen and beat her until she bled, warning that her friends would be targeted too if she didn’t leave. With bruises and a black eye, the 53-year-old was returned to protective custody, where her meagre freedoms were curtailed.
“But I’m safe (as I can be). So are my friends and that’s what really matters,” she wrote of the incident.
It had been almost two decades since Kathleen Folbigg was convicted of killing her four infant children, Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura, and the hatred for her still ran deep. Though, as her letter states, she is not friendless. Kathleen has always had a group of devoted allies who believe she is innocent, and now some of the finest scientific minds in the world have added their voices to the chorus of support.
Rhanee Rego, one of the lawyers who has worked unpaid on Folbigg’s case for almost five years, puts it simply: “It’s the worst miscarriage of justice in Australian history.”
“Kathleen never stood a chance. When all of this was said, and she couldn’t then prove her innocence, which was never her job anyway, she was doomed,” Rhanee tells The Weekly. Kathleen’s backers say there is significant new evidence that the Folbigg babies died of natural causes, not the murder and manslaughter charges that put Kathleen behind bars. In a sensational development last month, 90 pre-eminent scientists sent a petition to the NSW Governor calling for Kathleen to be pardoned and freed. Two Nobel Laureates and three former Australians of the Year signed the document that says Kathleen Folbigg is suffering with psychological trauma and being physically abused while in prison on evidence that’s “entirely circumstantial”.
“She has endured the death of her four children and has been wrongfully incarcerated because the justice system has failed her,” the petition says. “Ms Folbigg should be granted a pardon.”
They say genetic mutations identified in the Folbigg daughters likely caused their deaths. The Folbiggs’ sons had a different genetic mutation that is not yet fully understood, in addition to medical conditions that pointed to natural deaths.
But the law disagrees. On March 24 — 22 days after the petition was filed — the NSW Court of Appeal handed down a ruling saying there was no doubt of Kathleen’s guilt. Kathleen’s pro bono lawyers had asked the appeal court to review the 2019 inquiry conducted by Justice Reginald Blanch, who concluded the inquiry reinforced the original verdict.
“The evidence which has emerged at the inquiry … makes her guilt of these offences even more certain,” Justice Blanch said. The appeal court agreed, saying the girls’ deaths were “outliers” when compared to other deaths reported with the mutation.
This provoked an unprecedented response from the Australian Academy of Science, which put out a statement saying: “There are medical and scientific explanations for the death of each of Kathleen Folbigg’s children”.
ANU Professor Carola Vinuesa, who has analysed the Folbigg infants’ DNA, says she was surprised by the finding. “I was disappointed because for some reason I was expecting it was going to be different,” she said. “It’s not just about Kathleen Folbigg. It’s about: How can the court assess what is credible and reliable evidence?” The stakes could not be higher.
On a farm in Glenreagh, NSW, one of Kathleen’s oldest friends and most steadfast supporters, Tracy Chapman, spent March 22 fielding calls from the media wanting to hear Kathleen’s response to the court’s decision. “It only strengthens our resolve to keep going until the truth is self-evident,” she said.
“People say to me, ‘Are you deluded?’ but I’ve always said to Kath, if I really thought you were guilty, I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Tracy tells The Weekly. “A lot of people have accused me of supporting a killer but I don’t believe that for one second. Then, when you back that up with the evidence that says, ‘no evidence of smothering,’ they’re just going on circumstantial evidence and journalling.”
Kathleen’s life had been tough from the start. In December 1968, when she was not yet two, her father stabbed her mother to death and Kathleen was declared a ward of the state. A doctor said it was likely Kathleen had been abused by her father. She was placed in the care of her mother’s sister, but her aunt complained that the small child was “virtually uncontrollable” and she was sent to a children’s home. When she was three, she was adopted by a Mrs and Mr Marlborough who ran a strict but harmonious household.
At school Kathleen formed close friendships with Tracy Chapman and Megan Donegan. She completed Year 12, but never sat her final exams after her life was disrupted by the discovery of the truth about her past. “It was music class. She was a little late,” Megan recalls. “Kathleen had always thought she’d been adopted, but now finally the Marlboroughs had told her: ‘Oh no, we never adopted you. You’re a ward of the state and your father murdered your mother, which is why we’ve got you’. I didn’t know what to say to her. She was never offered counselling. It wasn’t the done thing back then. It was the early to mid-’80s.”
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