Science, Media and the Law: Lessons from the Kathleen Folbigg Case

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Kathleen Megan Folbigg was arrested in 2001, accused of murdering her four infant children. She was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment, with a non-parole period of 25 years.

Scientific and medical research suggesting the daughters might have died of natural causes was rejected by a judicial inquiry in 2019. Subsequent research published in 2020 led ninety eminent Australian scientists and medical professionals (led by the Australian Academy of Science) to petition the NSW Governor to pardon Folbigg. The petition succinctly demonstrated that all four deaths could be explained as the effects of very rare genetic factors. In June 2023, Folbigg was unconditionally pardoned by NSW Governor Margaret Beazley and released from prison, having served 20 of her minimum 25 year sentence. Her convictions were overturned in a subsequent decision by the NSW court of criminal appeal in December 2023.

While ultimately successful, the voice of scientific expertise was difficult to establish in the emotionally-charged circumstances of this challenging case; reopening the inquiry with fresh scientific perspectives relied on the discretion of the Attorney General of New South Wales. Public opinion is overwhelmingly shaped by the Australian media, and sustaining the attention of the political and legal system required a sustained campaign by a team of friends, philanthropists, scientists and legal professionals championing the cause.

Join key members of “Team Folbigg” to understand the barriers they experienced to considering complex genetic science as robust legal evidence in an Australian judicial system, and hear the case for change.

About the Speakers

Peter Yates

Peter Yates AM FTSE FAICD operates across three sectors in society, Financial Stewardship, Science and Not-for-Profit. In May 2021 he was appointed Chair of AIA Australia. He is also a Director of Linfox Australia and Mutual Trust P/L. He is Chair of the Australian Science Media Centre, the Royal Institution of Australia, the Royal Childrens’ Hospital Foundation, the Shared Value Project, the NHMRC Centre for Personalised Immunology and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology.

Peter holds a Doctorate of the University from Murdoch, a Masters from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and a Commerce degree from University of Melbourne. In 2011 he was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for service to education, to the financial services industry and to a range of arts, science and charitable organisations.

Anna-Maria Arabia

Ms Anna-Maria Arabia is CEO at the Australian Academy of Science. Starting her career as a neuroscientist, Anna-Maria has worked internationally scientific research, policy development and advocacy.

Her leadership has led to significant reform at the science-policy interface.  She has established novel mechanisms to facilitate evidence-informed decision making in parliaments and the justice system; spearheaded new approaches to science communication; and implemented global initiatives to make visible underrepresented scientists.

She provides policy advice to the highest levels of government in Australia and contributes to global policy for science engagement. Anna-Maria was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Star of Italy for her constant commitment to promoting the role of science in society and her determination in enabling young and diverse people to access science.

About the Panellists

David Balding

Professor David Balding FAA is a statistical geneticist with a long history of giving expert evidence in the courts of Australia, UK and other countries. While his primary expertise is in the evaluation of DNA profile evidence, he has also advised on many other issues relating to statistics and probabilities in court. He was educated at Newcastle (NSW) and Oxford (UK), holds honorary appointments at the University of Melbourne and University College London and is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

Tracy Chapman

Ms Tracy Chapman is a lifelong friend of Ms Folbigg who became her leading personal advocate and, later, the face of the campaign through interactions with high-profile media commentators and journalists. Ms Chapman is completing a Masters in counselling and autism education, volunteers in wildlife rescue and runs animal therapy programs for people suffering from grief, trauma and chronic pain.

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A joint presentation by the Royal Society of Victoria, the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and the Australian Academy of Science, filmed and broadcast with the support of the Inspiring Victoria program.
A National Science Week event.