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Sudden Infant Death Syndrome & The Kathleen Folbigg Case

By Bernie Matthews - posted Monday, 27 September 2004

Kathleen Megan Folbigg, 37, is either Australia's worst female serial killer or her case is a serious miscarriage of justice in which an innocent mother has been wrongfully convicted of infanticide.

In the NSW Supreme Court on May 21, 2003 Kathleen Folbigg was found guilty of murdering her children Patrick, Sarah and Laura at Newcastle and Singleton between 1991 and 1999. She was also found guilty for the 1989 manslaughter of her firstborn Caleb and of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Patrick in 1990. It took a jury comprising six men and six women just less than nine hours to reach its decision. Folbigg, who had pleaded not guilty to all charges, broke down in visible shock as the verdicts were read out. Justice Graham Barr sentenced her to 40 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 30 years.

At Sydney’s Mulawa Women’s Detention Centre, Folbigg was placed in protective custody for fear that other prisoners would kill or seriously injure her as a result of the convictions. “Rock spiders” (Australian prison jargon for child killers and child molesters) live a tenuous existence within the prison community because they are despised by both male and female mainstream populations. They require the security of segregation within protective custody for some degree of safety from other prisoners. Folbigg remains isolated in segregation whilst serving her sentence.


Kathleen Folbigg’s tragic family history also gave significant impetus to the Crown’s contention that she was capable of wilfully murdering her four children. Abandoned by her natural mother as an 18-month-old toddler Folbigg was raised in a succession of orphanages and foster homes after her father, Thomas John “Taffy” Britton murdered his estranged de facto.

Britton confronted Kathleen Mary Donavan outside her home in the Sydney suburb of Annandale on January 9, 1969 and stabbed her 24 times. They had been living in a de facto relationship that had produced 18-month-old Kathleen prior to Donovan leaving during November the previous year. Britton was convicted of murder and received a life sentence. He served 12 years before getting deported to the United Kingdom.

Kathleen was sent to a church orphanage where she remained until she was adopted by a foster family from the Newcastle suburb of Kotara. Raised as Kathleen Marlborough, she was an adult before she learned the truth about her parents. The impact of those events is evidenced by a diary entry dated October 14, 1996 in which Kathleen Folbigg wrote, "Obviously I am my father's daughter".

That diary entry, made after three of her children had already died, was seized upon as a circumstantial link to her guilt. Crown Prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC claimed the entry indicated Folbigg was a violent murderous person like her father and suffered from an attachment disorder that prevented her from bonding with her four children. Although the damning memoir was ruled prejudicial and not disclosed to the jury, other parts of the diary were used.

The court was told that Kathleen met Craig Folbigg and the pair married in 1987. Their first child was born February 1, 1989. Caleb was 19-days-old when Craig was awoken by Kathy's screams, "My baby, something is wrong with my baby!". Caleb was dead. His death was diagnosed as SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

Eighteen months later Kathleen Folbigg gave birth to Patrick. He was four months old before history repeated itself but ambulance officers were able to revive the baby despite massive brain damage. Patrick lived another four months before he died. Doctor’s diagnosed an epileptic fit as the cause of death.


October 14, 1992 the Folbigg’s third child, Sarah, was born. Craig Folbigg testified that on the day Sarah died Kathleen had pinned the child to her in a bear hug while slapping her bottom. She then pushed the child onto him saying, "You f...king deal with her". Later that night he woke about 1.10am to find his wife and Sarah missing from their beds but went back to sleep. He was woken by Kathleen’s screams. Sarah was motionless in her bed. SIDS was again diagnosed as the cause of death.

The Folbigg’s fourth child, Laura, was born in August 1997 and survived for 19 months before she also died. After Laura’s death the marriage collapsed and Kathleen left Craig and moved into a flat. After Kathleen left, Craig Folbigg found his wife’s diary and handed it to police.

Kathleen denied any involvement in the deaths of her children but in April 2001 she was charged with four counts of murder and one count of inflicting grievous bodily harm.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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