Is Australia’s deadliest female serial killer actually innocent?
On February 1, 1989, Caleb Folbigg was born. Nineteen days later, he was discovered dead in his crib. His tragic death was initially blamed on SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome.
His brother, Partick Allen was born in 1990 and died nine months later from what was believed to be an epileptic seizure. Two years later, when their sister Sarah Kathleen was born, then apparently died of SIDS months later.
When the youngest, Laura, died at eighteen months old in 1999, authorities started suspecting foul play. Laura apparently died of SIDS like her brothers. At that point, four infants’ deaths in the same family were too suspicious to ignore.
Death by smothering
A forensic pathologist who conducted Laura Folbigg’s autopsy suggested it was possible the children’s mother, Kathleen Folbigg, smothered them. He raised the possibility because Laura, at eighteen months, would have been too old to die of SIDS.
Per experts, SIDS usually happens because a baby’s head turns into a pillow or onto a mattress while they’re sleeping. Since their muscles are undeveloped, they can’t lift their head up to breathe and they end up suffocating to death. By eighteen months, Laura’s age, most children develop the muscles to lift their heads up to avoid dying from SIDS.
With three other dead children and a fourth who was unlikely to have died from SIDS, authorities turned their attention to the Folbigg children’s mother, Kathleen. After a two-year investigation, medical experts changed their opinions on the Folbigg children’s deaths being from natural causes, and Kathleen was arrested for murdering them.
The profile of a female serial killer
Female serial killers are rare. Those who exist usually kill in a caregiving capacity, taking on jobs as nurses or home aids and killing their patients. They often make their kills look like accidents, and they’re only caught when they have one “accident” too many.
A notable exception to the typical female serial killer’s profile is Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute who killed seven of her johns.
Mothers who kill their children
The “smoking gun” in the Australian authorities’ case against Kathleen Folbigg was a diary where she confessed to being relieved her children had “shut up” after they died. While authorities had no forensic evidence the children died by smothering, the diary provided a motive strong enough to secure Folbigg’s conviction for manslaughter.
Most mothers who kill their children suffer from postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. More than just “baby blues,” PPD and PPP are serious medical conditions that require close attention from doctors. They’re caused by chemical imbalances from hormone changes experienced after giving birth, not from a mother’s lack of love.
There are exceptions. Diane Downs killed her children in cold blood, apparently to be with a lover who said he didn’t want kids. It’s noteworthy that Downs’ behavior after her children’s death was very different from Folbigg. Downs appeared upset about her car being ruined and talked about herself in interviews. Folbigg was tearful about her kids.
Reconsidering Kathleen Folbigg’s guilt
As Kathleen Folbigg sat in prison for the death of her children, experts took a different view on her conviction. Clinical psychologists started to question if she should have even been charged. While her diary entries were dark, she never indicated she wanted to kill her kids. Nor did Folbigg write a confession in her private journals.
Another consideration for Kathleen Folbigg’s innocence was a better understanding of postpartum depression. Millions of mothers have despairing thoughts about their children during the isolating, sleep-deprivation newborn phase. As awareness of PPD has grown, so has support. Also, most mothers with PPD never harm their children.
However, a question remained: why did all four of Kathleen Folbigg’s children die? It was too much of a coincidence to secure Folbigg’s release. The circumstances even stumped Folbigg’s defenders.
A DNA breakthrough
In a peer-reviewed article, scientists discovered a rare mutation in Kathleen Folbigg’s children that proved they died of natural causes. The gene, called CALM2 G114R, can cause sudden cardiac arrest in young children. After the study, twenty-seven international scientists petitioned for Folbigg’s release.
Patrick, who died of epilepsy, also had a gene that caused seizures & death in lab mice.
What will this mean for Kathleen Folbigg?
Kathleen Folbigg was convicted based on a discredited theory called Cot Death Theory. It suggested that if there were more than two cases of SIDS in one household, it was most likely murder. The theory put a lot of innocent mothers in jail in the UK. So far, four have been exonerated.
However, this isn’t the first time Kathleen Folbigg petitioned for her innocence. In previous hearings, the judge upheld the convictions, stating that the only possible cause of death was smothering and the only suspect was Folbigg.
Whether she’ll receive another hearing in light of DNA evidence remains to be seen. However, Kathleen Folbigg has vowed to keep proving her innocence as long as possible.