06/20/2023 - Woman Convicted of Killing Her Children Pardoned and Released After Inquiry Unveils New Scientific Evidence

Researchers and legal experts are commending the involvement of an independent scientific adviser in an Australian judicial inquiry that resulted in the release of Kathleen Folbigg, who had been imprisoned for 20 years for the deaths of her four children. The inquiry concluded that there was reasonable doubt about Folbigg's guilt in each of the offenses she was initially tried for. Scientists involved in the inquiry are now advocating for legal reforms in Australia to establish a formal process for presenting emerging scientific evidence.

The case marked a significant inclusion of scientific input, as stated by Michael Toft Overgaard, a protein scientist at Aalborg University in Denmark who served as an expert witness. Overgaard described the entire case as surreal for the scientific community.

Genetic evidence, not available during Folbigg's trial, revealed that rare mutations in the calmodulin protein could have been responsible for the deaths of her two daughters, and a neurogenetic disorder could have contributed to the death of one of her sons. Calmodulin plays a crucial role in regulating cellular calcium concentration, including the contractions of the heart.

Carola Vinuesa, a geneticist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, was approached by Folbigg's legal team in 2018 to sequence the genomes of Folbigg and her deceased children. Vinuesa discovered mutations in a gene called calmodulin 2 in Folbigg's genome and her daughters' genomes, which could explain the deaths of the girls. However, this evidence did not convince the commissioner of the initial inquiry, who upheld Folbigg's convictions. In 2019, Vinuesa reached out to the Australian Academy of Science, which petitioned the governor of New South Wales to grant Folbigg a pardon based on subsequent research by Overgaard and others that demonstrated how the mutations affected protein function.

With no other legal avenues remaining, the governor ordered a new inquiry, and the academy was appointed as a scientific adviser. The academy recommended scientific expert witnesses and provided guidance on their areas of expertise. Approximately 30 researchers, suggested by the academy, presented evidence at the inquiry. Other experts were called by both the prosecution and defense teams. Anna-Maria Arabia, the chief executive of the academy, highlighted that the inquiry heard the most up-to-date scientific knowledge from qualified scientists worldwide. The expert witnesses were independent and available for questioning by all parties.

Peter Schwartz, a cardiologist in Milan, Italy, and an expert in calmodulin mutations causing sudden death, testified as one of the experts. Schwartz, who has advised on numerous medico-legal cases, praised the involvement of the academy, which ensured that the inquiry received world-leading evidence from relevant experts, instead of relying solely on local experts.

Overgaard mentioned that experts were given ample time to provide necessary scientific background, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the science by the lawyers. He also mentioned an instance where he spent over five hours explaining how calmodulin protein mutations impair its function. The inquiry was temporarily paused so that Overgaard and his team could update their evidence based on further experiments conducted to address questions from another expert.

Jason Chin, a legal academic, suggests that independent scientific advisers could be utilized more frequently, particularly in judicial inquiries that have greater discretion in the process. Arabia believes that the case exemplifies the collaboration between the science and justice systems and calls for legal reforms to create a more science-sensitive legal system. She and others advocate for the establishment of a criminal case review commission, similar to that in the United Kingdom, which can reassess cases when new scientific evidence emerges.

While acknowledging the positive aspects of incorporating science, researchers caution that scientific evidence doesn't always provide clear-cut conclusions. Hugh Watkins, a cardiologist at the University of Oxford, emphasizes the nuanced nature of scientific understanding and the evolving nature of science itself. He said “When the science is really nuanced, and really new and evolving as this was, you still may not get consensus,”