New voices in the fight for Kathleen’s release
More voices have been added to the growing support for Kathleen Folbigg’s immediate release, with Lawyer’s Weekly releasing an update on her case, an in-depth investigation by Wired and a new documentary on the way.
Lawyer’s Weekly writes: “A ground-breaking development within clinical practice that indicates a natural cause of death for two of Kathleen Folbigg’s children is further evidence that she has spent the last 19 years behind bars for a crime she never committed, her solicitor tells Lawyers Weekly in this exclusive look at likely our worst miscarriage of justice yet.
“Earlier this year, a legal team behind Ms Folbigg circulated a petition containing new research into an unreported cardiac mutation found in two of her children, Sarah and Laura, that explains how they likely died from natural causes. In a development shared with Lawyers Weekly, that mutation has been added to the list of mutations in ClinVar, a worldwide authoritative database used by clinicians and geneticists.
“Put another way, if the mutation – referred to as the CALM2 G114R gene – is found in an infant who dies without explanation, a genetic counsellor will inform the families that it is the cause of death. Ms Folbigg’s lawyer, Rhanee Rego, said not only would this bring families some certainty, but it would lead to better options for people to start preventative therapy that was not available to Ms Folbigg over two decades ago.
“Today, Kathleen, who has the CALM2 G114R mutation but is affected differently by it (given her cardiac history), would be counselled that she could consider having a cardioverter device implanted to avoid having a fatal cardiac arrest,” Ms Rego said, adding that ‘it’s hard to emphasise just how important [the ClinVar addition] is because it has the capacity to save lives across the world’.
“In addition to saving countless lives, the addition of CALM2 G114R to ClinVar is an “important breakthrough” for science and solidifies that the two female Folbigg girls died from the lethal mutation, rather than the crimes their mother was convicted for.”
“I very strongly urge the Attorney-General and those advising him to expedite this matter and not let an innocent woman spend her 19th Christmas in prison. Look at the cold, hard, verifiable scientific facts that lead to the only reasonable conclusion: there is an innocent woman languishing in prison for crimes she did not commit,” Ms Rego said.
Why this renowned forensic pathologist fights for Kathleen
Wired has published an article that explores Carola Garcia de Vinuesa’s involvement in the case, after being asked to examine the evidence in 2018.
It reveals that in her email to the lawyer, Carola wrote: “As a mother, I cannot think of any more worthy cause to invest time and effort in. I find it hard to believe there is someone sitting in jail for this.”
It also notes that in 2013, Stephen Cordner, a renowned forensic pathologist at Melbourne’s Monash University wrote up a 112-page report arguing that the facts more strongly supported natural causes than smothering—the evidence for which was zilch. In a veiled criticism of the expert testimony in Kathleen’s case from 2003, he wrote, “There is no merit in forcing certainty where uncertainty exists.”
Wired writes: “In June 2015, Folbigg’s legal team delivered an official petition, including Cordner’s report, to the attorney general’s office in Sydney, where it sat for three years. Finally, on August 22, 2018, attorney
general Mark Speakman announced that an official inquiry would take place the following year.”
In 2018, a technician in Vinuesa’s lab put samples of Kathleen’s DNA through a genetic sequencing and discovered a mutation in Kathleen’s CALM2 gene. CALM2 is one of three genes in the calmodulin family, which among other things help regulate the heart’s expansions and contractions. Other calmodulin variants have been associated with severe cardiac disorders and sudden death in infancy.
“Professionally, Vinuesa had little to gain from spending her free time investigating the genome of a convicted killer. But seeing that mutation in the CALM2 gene triggered in her a sense of duty.
“In December, Vinuesa finished her report on the CALM2 variant and sent it to Folbigg’s lawyers. They passed it on to inquiry officials in the government. Soon, Vinuesa was traveling to Sydney to meet with a
handful of other scientists who had been assigned to the case. Officials with the New South Wales attorney general’s office had asked these scientists—some of whom worked for the government—to conduct a separate genetic investigation.
Vinuesa, eager to share her results on CALM2, told them what she’d found. To her surprise, she sensed in a few of the scientists in the room some conservatism—even animosity—toward her approach.
In February 2019, Vinuesa found in Laura and Sarah precisely the same CALM2 mutation as in Kathleen and wrote a report saying the novel CALM2 variant was “likely pathogenic.”
In March, the Folbigg inquiry hearings began at the Forensic Medicine and Coroner’s Court in Sydney’s western suburbs. Vinuesa and several of the geneticists came to testify.
Wired reports that the members of the Sydney team were seated on an elevated platform, while Vinuesa and her colleague were instructed to sit to the side at a small table and her credentials were questioned.
“I was introduced in a way that was disqualifying from the outset,” she said. “I felt it, and I was so angry.”
A little while later, a pediatric cardiologist named Jonathon Skinner, who had assessed the cardiac health records of Folbigg and her children, was called to testify. At one point, Furness asked him about
the CALM2 gene. Skinner responded that because Kathleen showed no evidence of cardiac disease, to suggest it had killed her daughters was “stretching credibility.”
“In the weeks after her testimony, Vinuesa spent several sleepless nights going over what had happened in court.
“One night, when she was home and obsessing over the case, Vinuesa emailed a handful of cardiac geneticists for their opinion on the CALM2 variant. One of them was Peter Schwartz, a cardiovascular geneticist at Italy’s Istituto Auxologico Italiano and an expert on life-threatening heart defects caused by mutations of the CALM genes.
“When Schwartz replied, his email held a bombshell: He had just published a paper reviewing the International Calmodulin Registry, a large, collaborative effort to enlist every person with a disease-causing mutation in the CALM genes. One family, he wrote, had variant in another CALM gene that looked almost identical to the Folbigg mutation. In this family, two children had suffered cardiac arrest at ages 4 and 5, and one of them had died. Their mother, from whom they inherited the mutation, was seemingly healthy.”
However, the Sydney team “seemed to have made their minds up and were not willing to accept this new evidence”.
Wired writes: “Reginald Blanch, the judicial officer presiding over the inquiry, was left with a decision to make. The Sydney team and the Canberra team had submitted conflicting expert opinions. When Blanch
delivered his decision in July of 2019, his language was unmistakably subjective.”
The night Vinuesa read the inquiry report, she couldn’t believe it. In the middle of the night, she woke up weeping.
“She thought about Folbigg: If this woman was in fact innocent, her suffering must be beyond comprehension,” Wired notes.
There was only one option left: to petition the governor of New South Wales to enact the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. In other words, to grant Kathleen a pardon. In March, Folbigg’s legal team drafted the petition and sent it to eminent scientists around the world to sign. So far, they have collected more than 100 signatures, including from several of the world’s leading cardiac geneticists and two Nobel laureates.
“The petition—like the appeals that came before it—argues that the new evidence on the CALM2 variant raises reasonable doubt about Folbigg killing all four of her children. To keep Folbigg in prison would
be to establish a dangerous precedent, ‘as it means that cogent medical and scientific evidence can simply be ignored in preference to subjective interpretations of circumstantial evidence.
“The petition awaits review in the office of the New South Wales attorney general, Mark Speakman. Vinuesa and many of her peers insist the science is clear—CALM2 is now in the medical literature as a genetic cause of SIDS. The investigation of Folbigg’s DNA had helped to advance scientific knowledge. But Folbigg’s own fate remains uncertain.
Vinuesa finally met Kathleen earlier this year and admits she couldn’t help but feel she had let her down.
“Vinuesa told Folbigg she had hoped to say goodbye on a happier note,” Wired writes. “Folbigg told her that the petition alone had improved her life in prison. After it became public, she said, she received a letter from
other inmates telling her she was now welcome to join them in the main section of the prison. They believed her to be innocent.”
Professor Carola has also spoken on UK radio about the case.
New documentary on the way
Additionally, another documentary is about to be commissioned in Denmark on the case, which will start filming here in early February, as the eyes of the world begin to focus on this terrible miscarriage of justice.
It follows the two-part Discovery Channel/BBC documentary released in November: The Baby Killer Conspiracy.
It tells the story of three mothers who were given life sentences based on one man’s killer statistic. Now one of these women is dead, one is free and one, Kathleen, is still in prison.
In 1998, Professor Sir Roy Meadows stated that unless proven otherwise, the chances of three babies from the same mother dying of natural causes were 1 in 73 million. After British solicitor Sally Clark suffered the devastating loss of her second baby, Meadows’ Law was used to arrest and convict her of murdering both of her children. In 2002, supermarket worker Angela Cannings was also jailed after the death of her third child. In what can only be described as a modern-day witch hunt, Meadows’ Law set a default position that multiple infant deaths in one family is so rare that it had to be murder, and was used to arrest grieving mothers across the world and presented in Kathleen’s trial.
Meadows’ evidence was eventually discredited and Sally Clark was freed.
Although she never got her life back, her release contributed to three other British mothers having their convictions overturned.
Clare Laycock, SVP Planning & Insights, Head of Entertainment at Discovery, said it was an important and gripping documentary series that confronts the devastating miscarriages of justice still impacting women today.
PICTURED MAIN: ART BY MARIE SMITH, VIA WIRED