What could be more horrific, more disturbing to the fundamental principles of humanity, than a mother who kills her children?
Who could be more of a monster, more the epitome of everything we fear and despise, than Kathleen Folbigg?
Folbigg achieved notoriety in 2003 when she was convicted for the deaths of her four children – Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura – over a ten year period. She was convicted of manslaughter over the death of her first child, Caleb, and murder of the subsequent three children.
The deaths of the earlier children aroused no suspicion and were attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is a diagnosis often made in the absence of evidence of cause of death, when an infant dies unexpectedly in their sleep. It was the death of the fourth child, Laura, which drew Folbigg to the attention of authorities; at 19 months old, she was well past the traditional danger age for SIDS, and had been by all accounts a healthy child. There was much debate as to whether multiple SIDS deaths in one family were statistically improbable, or whether there was a familial risk where one death made subsequent deaths more likely.
But there was no forensic evidence showing the children had been deliberately killed.
With the lack of forensic evidence, a key tool in the conviction of Mrs Folbigg was her personal diaries. The diaries, given by Mrs Folbigg’s husband Craig to police after she left the family home following the death of her fourth child Laura and presented as evidence at trial, appeared to show her admitting guilt for the deaths of her children. The defence argued the diaries showed only her feelings of grief and guilt at the deaths of her children:
“With Sarah, all I wanted was her to shut up. And one day she did”
‘Scared she’ll leave me now. Like Sarah did. I was short tempered and cruel sometimes and she left. With a bit of help”.
There is no direct admission in the diaries that Folbigg took any direct action that led to the deaths of her children.
But Folbigg was also on trial as a mother. She didn't cry enough. She wasn't warm. She was said to prefer going to the gym and nightclubs to being with her children. From there it was surely just a short step to murdering them,
In this, she was compared to Lindy Chamberlain, who was also portrayed as hard and uncaring, not sufficiently emotional following the death of her daughter Azaria. Chamberlain was also othered, cast aside from the mould of accepted motherhood, due to her perceived-as-strange religion of Seventh Day Adventism, for dressing the child in black, and rumours that Azaria’s name meant “sacrifice in the wilderness” – that far from being the doting mother, Chamberlain birthed her daughter to complete some ritualistic killing in the Australian outback.
We now know Lindy Chamberlain was not responsible for the death of her daughter.
Much was made of her troubled background, with her father murdering her mother when Folbigg was a toddler, and from that time lived in a succession of foster homes and had difficulty forming attachments - as if a person's parenting skills can be forseen from their behaviour as a child growing up in unfamiliar homes.
Lacking forensic evidence, the prosecutions case relied on the opinion of doctors - who argued that the odds of four children in one family dying of SIDS were so statistically unlikely as to be impossible.
We also now know that SIDS seems to run in families - meaning the death of one child from SIDS makes the deaths of subsequent children more likely.
The standard for criminal conviction in the Australian legal system is that the prosecution have proven their case "beyond a reasonable doubt". Whether or not Folbigg is guilty, her conviction is unsound. Her guilt was never proven beyond a reasonable doubt. It couldn't be.
Luckily this is not being allowed to stand as it is. The Newcastle Legal Centre is currently working on a petition for a judicial review of the case, based on the lack of forensic evidence. So that will play out over the next year or so.
Kathleen Folbigg was created as a monster by the media and society by what she is supposed to have done. And she should not be in jail, not now, not whilst there is no concrete evidence or her guilt, not whilst her conviction relied on opinion rather than fact.