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She killed her four children – but what if we got it wrong? | Emma Cunliffe

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“You put something over her face so she couldn’t breathe?”

“Oh, God. No.”

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Australians watched closely last week as “convicted baby killer” Kathleen Folbigg testified at an inquiry into her convictions. Over two days, she was challenged 70 times to admit that she had smothered her four children. She denied the accusation each time. (Perhaps the lawyers believed that if they asked often enough, her answer would change.)

The words written by Folbigg in her diaries were dissected as if they were statutes. Surely, the lawyers asked, only a person who has killed her children would believe that she doesn’t deserve another chance at motherhood? Only a murderous mother would think that fate is punishing her? Do you agree, asked one, that the words in your diary have an objective meaning which is at odds with your testimony?

When the questioning permitted, Folbigg explained that she blamed herself for her children’s deaths because she believed it was a mother’s responsibility to protect her children from every harm. She described how her grief and depression compounded over the course of a decade of loss. Her diaries provided an outlet to which she confided her fears and in which she tried to find hope for a happier future.

Folbigg’s diaries and letters reveal that she and her then-husband Craig felt that a family was not complete without children. Always well organised, in the face of successive infant deaths Folbigg became superstitious, almost obsessive, about controlling every detail of her children’s upbringing.

Media coverage of Folbigg’s testimony has dwelled on its more sensational moments: the darkest diary entries; her visit to a clairvoyant; and her “supernatural” belief that her children are now in a place where they are together and happy.

However, the press reports have largely ignored medical evidence heard by the inquiry that now establishes the likelihood of natural causes of death for each of Folbigg’s children: bacterial infection, epilepsy, a physical malfunction of the upper airways, myocarditis. In two of the children, sudden infant death syndrome would be an appropriate diagnosis. The doctors are unanimous that there is no physical evidence that any child was ever deliberately harmed, let alone smothered.

Folbigg was convicted in 2003. At that time, some medical experts believed that recurrent unexpected infant deaths in a family should be regarded as murder, unless an alternative medical explanation could be found. As I document in my book Murder, Medicine and Motherhood, that belief has since been discredited. Mothers who were convicted in other jurisdictions on the basis of similar reasoning have been exonerated.

However, Australia’s post-conviction review processes are far less effective than those that exist elsewhere. The present inquiry is an extremely rare procedure, reserved for cases where there is credible evidence that we may have convicted an innocent person. This inquiry was ordered because of the doubts that have arisen about the medical basis for Folbigg’s conviction.

In the absence of medical evidence of foul play – and given reliable evidence supporting natural causes of death – we should be cautious about assessing a mother’s criminal responsibility by the quality of her reactions to almost unimaginable bereavement. Research about parental responses to infant death demonstrates that self-blame and irrational beliefs are widespread, and that these phenomena are more pronounced in mothers.

Australian poet laureate Les Murray (who died last week) provoked strong reactions for his ability to cut to the moral heart of Australian culture. In A Deployment of Fashion, he addressed the Australian cultural penchant for the ritual humiliation of women:

In Australia, a lone woman

is being crucified by the Press

at any given moment.

With no unedited right

of reply, she is cast out

into Aboriginal space.

It’s always for a defect in weeping:

she hasn’t wept on cue

or she won’t weep properly.

In Australia, Murray suggests, misogyny sells papers. Murray references Lindy Chamberlain, who provides the paradigmatic example of how legal processes can feed the media obsession with outcast women, and how legal processes can be vulnerable to all of the same prejudices as the media.

What does Murray’s poem have to do with Folbigg?

In a case such as this, finding truth requires thoughtful engagement with experiences of bereavement, mothering through grief, and the strains that infant death imposes on a marriage.

Those who cross-examined Folbigg last week showed no interest in this kind of understanding. The inquiry has not sought expert evidence to help it learn about maternal bereavement and its potential effects on a mother’s self-expression. Folbigg’s own efforts to explain the relationship between her grief, her religious beliefs and her most private musings were met with scorn.

This month Folbigg was the woman who wouldn’t weep properly, the one we cast out with no unedited right of reply.

Imagine if we judged her wrongly.

  • Dr Emma Cunliffe is an Associate Professor at the Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia

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