Forensic Biology
Can A Genetic Variation Prove Innocence?

Can A Genetic Variation Prove Innocence?

Kathleen Folbigg (now 55 years old), who was found guilty of killing her four infant children, is set to hear that experts are divided on whether new scientific evidence of genetic variation could prove her innocence.

She was convicted in 2003 of the murders of her children Patrick, Sarah and Laura and the manslaughter of Caleb and has been behind bars since then. Caleb died aged 19 days, Patrick was eight months, Sarah 10 months and Laura 18 months.

It has been told that a rare genetic variation found in two of Kathleen Folbigg’s children could lead to the convicted baby killer being pardoned and freed from jail after 19 years.

An inquiry examining the death of Folbigg’s four children and advances in scientific research into rare genetic mutations and genetic variations has begun in Sydney.

Genetic testing found Folbigg carries a novel genetic variation known as CALM2 G114R, as did her two daughters. Counsel assisting the inquiry, Sophie Callan, SC, said this “may cause cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death of young children”.

In fact, the research supporting the theory that her children died of a cardiac condition, rather than being smothered by their mother, was previously endorsed by hundreds of expert doctors and scientists.

However, the council assisting the inquiry Sophie Callan SC noted in her opening address “The scientific report is not universally accepted”. She said, “No expert is expected to tell your honour that the CALM2 G114R variant definitely caused the deaths of either Sarah or Laura Folbigg. Equally, no expert is expected to tell your honour that the CALM2 variant could not possibly cause their death nor do we anticipate there will be any expert who will definitively deny it or reject it”.

Cardiac electrophysiologist Associate Professor Hariharan Raju told the hearing on Monday very little is known about the variant. He told, “Calmodulin variants are relatively recently described and are exceptionally rare conditions”

Raju conducted an electrocardiograph on Folbigg before a 2019 inquiry but, aside from viewing historical results of other tests, has not consulted with her since then. He said, “So much so, as someone with an interest in cardiogenetic disease … Folbigg is the first individual that I have personally been involved with.”

Folbigg, who has suffered from recurring transient loss of consciousness since childhood, has declined to participate in further tests ahead of the current inquiry. To this Raju concluded, “Overall, I still feel she doesn’t have sufficient data to confirm a diagnosis. When I consulted with her, although the DNA variant had been identified, it wasn’t clear at that point whether it was responsible for any disease at all”.

Over the next two weeks, former chief justice Tom Bathurst QC will hear from about 10 cardiac and genetics experts. The inquiry is set to continue in February 2023 when evidence from Folbigg’s diaries will be examined and psychologists and psychiatrists will be called to give their expert opinion.

Scientific evidence into the deaths of Caleb and Patrick will also be examined then, because the variant found in Folbigg and her two daughters was not detected in Caleb or Patrick Folbigg. Craig Folbigg, the children’s father, has continued to decline the invitation to provide DNA for testing.

Folbigg’s supporters, including her best friend Tracy Chapman, donned “Justice for Kathleen Folbigg” T-shirts as they arrived at the hearing on Monday. She spoke to Folbigg on Monday morning and described her state of mind as “anxious”. 

She said, “We’re all hoping that the judicial system is capable of processing all the scientific and mental health-related information that’s before them. There’s an overwhelming amount of positive evidence for Kathleen, so we’re looking forward to having justice.”

Folbigg will not give evidence before the inquiry and is watching proceedings via videolink from prison at Clarence Valley Correctional Centre. Folbigg has always maintained her innocence.

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