Kathleen Folbigg was obviously guilty of murder. All four of the infants she gave birth to died before their second birthday. Her first son, Caleb, died when he was only 19 days old. Three other infants survived from 8 months to 18 months of age. One child had seizures, but there was no evidence that he died from a complication of a seizure disorder. In fact, seizures in otherwise healthy infants are unlikely to be fatal. Although the children exhibited no evidence of abuse or life-threatening injuries, the Australian jury that heard the case against this mother of 4 dead babies considered not just the improbability of these deaths being unrelated to foul play but also statements in Ms. Folbigg’s diary that indicated she was ‘responsible’ for the deaths of these 4 children.
Despite the trite adage that, “Confession is good for the soul,” it is not good when culpability is an issue. These diary entries were seen by many, including her husband, as confessions of her serial murders, rather than the tortured thoughts of a woman faced by multiple, inexplicable tragedies. Folbigg agreed with the jury’s conclusion that she must have been responsible for the death of her babies, even though there was no evidence of neglect or abuse leading to their deaths. Logic indicated that this mother had Munchausen by proxy syndrome [see the movie The Sixth Sense], a situation in which a mother clandestinely causes injuries to her child to get sympathy for herself from those witnessing her self-imposed distress. The mother does not qualify as innocent by reason of insanity because she knows that her actions are wrong.
Ms. Folbigg was sent to jail in 2003 and sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment. An appeal of her conviction was rejected in 2019, and there was nothing to suggest she would ever be released from prison before the completion of her sentence. This year, 2023, she was released from jail on the basis of new information. It was not testimony of a new witness or confessions by a previously unsuspected perpetrator: it was new science.
The parents of these four dead children carried a defective gene [CALM2-G114R]. Normally this gene is responsible for producing a protein vital for heart and brain function. A single copy of this defective gene would be of no consequence if the child inheriting this abnormal gene from one parent got a healthy copy from the other parent. With defective versions of this gene being contributed by both parents to their children, survival beyond a few months of life was impossible.
Human chromosomes, the blueprints for most of what we are and will be, come as paired strands with one strand from each pair being contributed by each parent. The maternal eggs have 23 half-chromosomes or strands that make up the instructions for creating an embryo. The paternal sperm contributes the other 23 half-strands that make up the normal human 23 pairs of chromosomes. When the sperm injects its 23 half-strands into the egg and they join up with the egg’s 23 half-strands, the egg is officially fertilized and, in the best case scenario from a species point of view, that fertilized egg is now equipped with a full set of 23 paired chromosomes with instructions that may lead to development of an embryo which may lead to development of a fetus which may lead to development of a child.
If both parents have a defect in the same gene on one strand of genetic material but have a healthy gene on the other strand, the normal gene on the healthy strand may compensate for the defective gene, and neither parent will exhibit problems caused by the defective gene. As the strands split from the pairs in normal cells and become unpaired strands in eggs and sperm, the probability that an egg with a defective gene will be fertilized by a sperm with a defective gene in the same location is 1 in 4 [trust me]. That this will occur in 4 pregnancies with chromosomes contributed from the same couple is 1 in 256 [trust me again]. This highly improbable event occurred with each of Ms. Folbigg’s pregnancies.
That it is improbable does not mean it is impossible. The defective gene for making a vital protein that came from Ms. Folbigg paired up with a defective gene for making the same protein that came from her husband. With no genes from either parent that could make the normal protein in their offspring, the children were doomed. Bad genes, not bad parenting, killed them.
A couple in Massachusetts carrying genes that, when inherited as a pair from the parents by a fetus, caused cystic fibrosis had 8 consecutive pregnancies producing children with cystic fibrosis. The probability of this genetic disorder occurring in any particular fetus produced by these parents was 1 in 4. The probability that it would occur eight times in the offspring of these asymptomatic parents was 1 in 65,486. There obviously must be other factors dictating this highly improbable occurrence. As we learn more about our chromosomes and their eccentricities, we shall be better equipped to predict the future of fertilized eggs and the self-destruct mechanisms some contain.
Of course, if this genetic defense had been introduced when she went on trial, Ms. Folbigg might still have been convicted of murder. Judges and juries are not chosen for their medical or scientific expertise. In some venues, attorneys avoid selecting jurors with relevant training. Knowledgeable jurors and judges are less easily convinced by the defense or prosecution arguments.
Miscarriages of justice, such as that in the Folbigg case, probably occur infrequently. That they occur at all is evidence of our own limitations as a species. We are inclined to let passion overwhelm logic in an effort to punish those we suspect of mistreating the defenseless. This has been especially evident in court cases involving scientific concepts that judges and juries do not understand. In the 1940s, the actor Charlie Chaplin was accused of fathering a child by an actress, Joan Barry. Blood tests proved that Chaplin was not the child’s father, but the court ruled that blood tests were inadmissible as evidence, and Ms. Barry won her paternity suit against Mr. Chaplin. Scientific advances simply cannot compete with emotional reactions.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.