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Australian court tosses woman's 2-decade-old convictions in deaths of her 4 children

Kathleen Folbigg, right, is embraced by friend Tracy Chapman outside the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.
Dan Himbrechts
/
AP
Kathleen Folbigg, right, is embraced by friend Tracy Chapman outside the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal in Sydney, Australia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2023.

CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian appeals court on Thursday overturned all convictions against a woman 20 years after a jury found her guilty of killing her four children.

Kathleen Folbigg already was pardoned at the New South Wales state government's direction and released from prison in June based on new scientific evidence that her four children may have died from natural causes as she had insisted.

The pardon was seen as the quickest way of getting the 56-year-old out of prison before an inquiry into the new evidence recommended the New South Wales Court of Appeals consider quashing her convictions.

Applause filled the courtroom and Folbigg wept after Chief Justice Andrew Bell overturned three convictions of murder and one of manslaughter.

"While the verdicts at trial were reasonably open on the evidence available, there is now reasonable doubt as to Ms. Folbigg's guilt," Bell said.

"It is appropriate Ms. Folbigg's convictions ... be quashed," Bell said.

Outside court, Folbigg thanked her supporters, lawyers and scientists for clearing her name.

"For almost a quarter of a century, I faced disbelief and hostility. I suffered abuse in all its forms. I hoped and prayed that one day I would be able to stand here with my name cleared," Folbigg said.

"I am grateful that updated science and genetics have given me answers of how my children died," she said tearfully.

But she said evidence that was available at the time of her trial that her children had died of natural causes was either ignored or dismissed.

"The system preferred to blame me rather than accept that sometimes children can and do die suddenly, unexpectedly and heartbreakingly," Folbigg said.

Her lawyer, Rhanee Rego, said their legal team would now demand "substantial" compensation from the state government for the years spent in prison. Folbigg had been labeled in the media as Australia's worst female serial killer.

The inquiry that recommended Folbigg's pardon and acquittal was prompted by a petition signed in 2021 by 90 scientists, medical practitioners and related professionals that argued that significant new evidence showed the children likely died of natural causes.

Her first child, Caleb, was born in 1989 and died 19 days later in what a jury determined to be the lesser crime of manslaughter. Her second child, Patrick, was 8 months old when he died in 1991. Two years later, Sarah died at 10 months. In 1999, Folbigg's fourth child, Laura, died at 19 months.

Prosecutors argued she smothered them. She was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Evidence was discovered in 2018 that both daughters carried a rare CALM2 genetic variant that could have caused their sudden deaths.

Experts also testified that myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, was also a possible cause of Laura's death.

There was also expert evidence that Patrick's sudden death was possibly caused by an underlying neurogenetic disorder.

The scientific explanations for the three siblings' deaths undermined the prosecutors' case that the tragedies established a pattern of behavior that pointed to Caleb's probable manslaughter.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
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