Wrongfully jailed for 20 years, Australia’s ‘most hated woman’ likely to receive record compensation | Australia news #Wrongfully #jailed #years #Australias #hated #woman #receive #record #compensation #Australia #news

Kathleen Folbigg was reviled as a baby killer and Australia’s “most hated woman” when she was convicted in 2003 of murdering three of her children and for the manslaughter of another.

But on Thursday, Folbigg’s convictions were quashed by an appeals court following an inquiry that examined new scientific evidence and found there was reasonable doubt of her guilt.

She had previously been pardoned and released from prison in June after 20 years behind bars.

The case could result in the biggest compensation payout for a wrongful conviction in Australia – and a reckoning for the nation’s legal system.

“For almost a quarter of a century, I faced disbelief and hostility,” Folbigg said after she was acquitted.

“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. I hope that no one else will ever have to suffer what I suffered.”

‘They cherrypicked words and phrases from my journals’

Folbigg’s original guilty verdict was not based on medical evidence that explained how her four young children – Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura – died between 1989 and 1999 aged between 19 days and 18 months.

Instead, the prosecution relied heavily on Folbigg’s diary entries as admissions of guilt. No trauma, journaling or grief experts were called to give evidence.

The case against Folbigg also relied on Meadow’s Law – a controversial and now discredited precept that three or more sudden infant deaths in one family were murders until proven otherwise.

In one diary entry written in 1998 about Laura, the last of her children to die, Folbigg wrote: “I yelled at her so angrily that it scared her, she hasn’t stopped crying. Got so bad I nearly purposely dropped her on the floor & left her.”

“I restrained enough to put her on the floor & walk away. Went to my room & left her to cry. Was gone probably only 5 mins but it seemed like a lifetime. I feel like the worst mother on this earth. Scared that she’ll leave me now. Like Sarah did. I knew I was short tempered & cruel sometimes to her & she left. With a bit of help.”

Folbigg on Thursday accused the prosecution of taking her words out of context.

“They cherrypicked words and phrases from my journals. Those books contained my private feelings, which I wrote to myself,” she said.

“No one expects those types of things to be read by strangers, let alone opinionated on. They took my words out of context and turned them against me. They accused me of something I never wrote about, never did and never could do.”

Two-decade fight for Folbigg a herculean effort’

It wasn’t the legal system simply working as it should that saw Folbigg eventually freed, according to her lawyer, Rhanee Rego, who worked pro-bono since 2017.

Australia doesn’t have an independent body to investigate possible miscarriages of justice – unlike the UK, US, New Zealand and Canada which have independent commissions to review convictions.

As Rego put it, Folbigg’s case relied on “a large group of good people who saw injustice and did something about it”.

One of them was Emma Cunliffe, a justice expert at the University of British Columbia who in 2011 published Murder, Medicine and Motherhood about Folbigg’s case.

It argued she had been wrongly convicted and the diary entries were not those of a guilty woman – but a grieving mother trying to make sense of her trauma.

She called out misogynistic reasoning in Folbigg’s case, noting normal behaviour such as working part-time and putting her children in childcare so she could go to the gym were viewed painted as suspicious in court.

A breakthrough came in 2018 when research by a team of experts, including immunologist Prof Carola Vinuesa, found Folbigg and her two daughters – Laura and Sarah – carried a rare genetic variation known as CALM2-G114R. It suggested there was a high chance the deaths were natural.

Vinuesa gave evidence at a 2019 judicial inquiry into Folbigg’s conviction. It also examined evidence from the initial trial and confirmed Folbigg’s guilt.

The genetic evidence and fresh medical research by an international team of scientists – which included identifying that the two boys, Caleb and Patrick, carried variants in a gene known as BSN “shown to cause early onset lethal epilepsy in mice” – were again raised in another inquiry earlier this year.

It was triggered by prominent scientists who called for Folbigg’s release based on strong evidence her children had died of natural causes. The 2023 inquiry found there was reasonable doubt surrounding Folbigg’s convictions and in June she was pardoned and released from prison.

One of Folbigg’s biggest advocates was childhood friend Tracy Chapman who always believed she was innocent. For 20 years. Chapman faced insults and death threats while supporting Folbigg during failed appeals.

“The 20-year fight for Kathleen has been a herculean effort,” she said. “It cost jobs, loss of income and shattered lives and relationships. It also required enormous mental fortitude.”

Folbigg said she was grateful updated science and genetics had provided answers as to how her children died. But, she added, the legal answers were there to prove her innocence in 1999.

“They were ignored and dismissed,” she said. “The system preferred to blame me rather than accept that sometimes children can and do die suddenly, unexpectedly, heartbreakingly.”

Nevertheless, Folbigg considers herself one of the “lucky ones”.

“I have a chance, with support, to rebuild my life. But there are many other people who aren’t so lucky. We need to be humble and open to improving the system to ensure truth is revealed because truth and the correct legal outcomes matter.”

Rego, the lawyer, said the case should be the turning point that forces Australia to introduce an independent body such as the UK’s Criminal Cases Review Commission.

“While this is Kathleen’s story, it exemplifies broader problems in our legal system – a poorly designed review system incapable of timely identification and rectification of miscarriages of justice.”

Rego said now her convictions had been overturned there should be compensation from the state. She would not put a figure on it but suggested it would be “bigger than any substantial payment that has been made before”.

The NSW attorney general, Michael Daley, said the government would consider any compensation requests.

“After all that has happened over the past 20 years, it is impossible not to feel great sympathy for all involved,” he said.

When Folbigg left prison in June, she moved to Chapman’s farm to heal and spend time with those who had stood by her.

“My children are here with me today and they will be close to my heart for the rest of my life,” she said on Thursday. “I loved my children and I always will.”

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