When genetics come to the rescue of an Australian convicted of four infanticides

When genetics come to the rescue of an Australian convicted of four infanticides
When genetics come to the rescue of an Australian convicted of four infanticides

Kathleen Folbigg has been behind bars for 18 years, convicted of killing her four children, crimes that have earned her been called “Australia’s worst serial killer.” In recent months, however, the portrait of the mother infanticide has cracked. What if these dramas all had a natural origin? Recent analyzes of the victims’ genomes have revealed mutations that can lead to sudden infant death syndrome. In view of these elements, 91 scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, petitioned the governor of New South Wales on March 3 to ask for the pardon of Kathleen Folbigg. Among them, researchers working at the Nantes University Hospital.

The black series begins on February 20, 1989 when Caleb Folbigg died, nineteen days after his birth. Sudden infant death is mentioned. The drama is repeated with Patrick, who died at eight months in February 1991, then with Sarah, who died in 1993 at the age of ten months. The causes then attributed are epilepsy and sudden death, respectively. It was when Laura in turn died in 1999, at the age of 18 months, that the police began to investigate. Kathleen Folbigg was arrested in 2001 and sentenced two years later to 40 years in prison, a sentence reduced to 30 years on appeal. According to the Supreme Court of New South Wales, she suffocated three of her children (manslaughter was held for Caleb).


But the verdict is inconvenient for several reasons. The mother never confessed. There is no witness. While no forensic evidence supports the murders thesis, the two pillars of the conviction are seen as fragile. The first is the analysis of the diaries kept by Kathleen Folbigg. In January 1998, she expressed her remorse at having cried out on her youngest daughter, Laura: “I feel like the worst mother on this Earth. Afraid that she will leave me now. Like Sarah. I knew I was angry and cruel to her sometimes and she left. With a little help. “

In 2019, Jeremy Morris, attorney for Kathleen Folbigg, said it was a “mistake” to view these writings as confessions: emotionally distressed parents can “irrationally blame themselves for their actions and omissions.” , he had declared.

The other axis of the charge is a principle, dubbed Meadow’s Law, which says: “Sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder, until. proof to the contrary. This rule, of uncertain origin, is considered today without much scientific basis. Several mothers, such as Britons Sally Clark and Angela Cannings, have been exonerated after being convicted on the same basis for tragedies affecting their respective children.

In recent years, it is no longer absurd to imagine the possibility that several infants of the same family die of natural causes. In 2016, a study led by researchers at the University of Paris Descartes, for example, documented the link between mutations in a gene, PPA2, and cardiac arrests in four children of five siblings.

Variants rares

In the case of the Folbigg family, the natural death hypothesis also gained ground. Carried out as part of the opening of a new investigation in 2018, the sequencing of the genomes of the children revealed rare variants of the CALM2 gene in the two girls. Mutations in CALM2 are known to cause sudden deaths.

“We consider that the variant probably precipitated the natural death of the two daughters,” affirmed, last November, the work of a group of experts published in EP Europace, a journal of the Oxford Academy. As for the two boys, they were, according to the researchers, carriers of rare variants of another gene, BSN, implicated in cases of fatal epilepsy in mice.

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Within the international team were several scientists from the Thorax Institute in Nantes. “We are a laboratory that has worked for a long time on hereditary cardiac arrhythmias. The Australian team saw our study on a gene go through and contacted us specifically for that gene, knowing that we had the tools available and the expertise in Nantes, ”explains Richard Redon, Research Director at Inserm. In March, two of her colleagues agreed to support the petition for Kathleen Folbigg.

At the antipodes, justice remains inflexible. In July 2020, the investigation opened two years earlier concluded that there was no “reasonable doubt” about Folbigg’s convictions. The New South Wales Court of Appeal last week went in the same direction, ruling that the findings of this investigation do not contradict scientific evidence. In a press release sent to Le Parisien, Kathleen Folbigg and her childhood friend and more loyal supporter, Tracy Chapman, express their determination at the announcement of this latest decision: “Many international observers are now on this affair and certainly many more. ‘Australians rightly wonder why Kath is still in prison after 18 years as there is mounting scientific evidence for her innocence. “

If granted, the pardon claimed by 91 researchers would not clear Kathleen Folbigg: “If the governor grants Mrs Folbigg a pardon, she will be released from prison, but will have to go to the New Wales Court of Criminal Appeal of the South to demand the annulment of his convictions ”, underlines Rhanee Rego, co-author of the petition. Appeals that are not ruled out, specifies the researcher in law: “The exact nature of these options remains carefully examined by Ms. Folbigg and her legal team. “

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