Cardiologists back legal review of infanticide life sentence

By Michael Woodhead

19 May 2022

Professor Carola Vinuesa

Leading cardiologists and researchers have lent their support to a legal review of a life sentence imposed on Kathleen Folbigg for alleged infanticide, with scientific evidence showing her children had a pathogenic genetic variant capable of causing cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death.

The Australian Academy of Science has welcomed the decision by NSW Attorney General to have new evidence examined via a second inquiry after more than a hundred of its members, including several Nobel Laureates, signed a petition last year stating there was overwhelming evidence to justify Ms Folbigg’s immediate release.

In 2003 Ms Folbigg was found guilty of murdering three of her children, and the manslaughter of a fourth, and sentenced to a non-parole period of 25 years in prison.

She has always protested her innocence and in 2019 an inquiry was told of new genomic evidence from ANU researchers showing that both Ms Folbigg and her daughters were carriers of a novel “G114R” variant in the calmodulin CALM2 gene that is strongly associated with cardiac arrhythmias of the IVF and CPVT type that may cause sudden infant death.

Scientists from ANU along with international researchers said the new genetic evidence, in combination with the symptoms reported in Ms Folbigg’s infants, suggested the deaths were due to natural causes and raised serious doubts about Ms Folbigg’s conviction.

The AAS said it looked forward to briefing the new inquiry about the latest evidence.

“The Academy intends to assist the Honourable Chief Justice Bathurst by making available suitable experts to advise on the medical, genetic, diary and probabilistic evidence. Given the complicated nature of the evidence, this will likely involve recruiting experts from around the world,” it said.

Australian Academy of Science Fellow Professor Carola Vinuesa from ANU, who led the genomic investigation research in Ms Folbigg’s family, said that given the strength of the medical and scientific findings, it was disappointing that Ms Folbigg had not been granted a pardon.

“The evidence goes well beyond raising a reasonable doubt and instead provides the likely explanation for the natural deaths of Ms Folbigg’s children.  Our findings have been endorsed by world-leading experts Professor Peter Schwartz and Professor Reza Razavi, and Australia’s renowned cardiologist Professor Chris Semsarian,” she said.

“Sudden death in these cases can be triggered by infection or fever and there was evidence of infection in both Folbigg daughters,” she added.

A recent paper published by researchers led Professor Peter Schwartz, Director of the Centre for Cardiac Arrhythmias of Genetic Origin at the Istituto Auxologico Italiano, Milan concluded: “The growing understanding of inherited cardiac arrhythmias forces a reassessment of the medical foundations, never challenged, on which several mothers were found guilty of infanticide on the basis of assumption instead of evidence.”

Professor Vinuesa  said the new genetic evidence in the Folbigg case has already been peer reviewed by other scientists, but the legal system has its own methods for testing evidence.

“Today’s decision points to the need for Australia to build a more scientifically sensitive and informed legal system,” she said.

“It must be capable of understanding advances in science and able to apply appropriately the information to legal cases. This will help reduce the likelihood of others enduring the miscarriage of justice that Kathleen Folbigg continues to face.”

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