CANBERRA, Australia – Australia’s attorney general on Wednesday refused to pardon a mother convicted nearly 20 years ago of strangling her four children to death, instead ordering a new investigation into whether there was a medical explanation for the tragedies.
This will be the second investigation in three years into the scientific evidence that all four of Kathleen Fulbig’s children may have died of natural causes.
A growing number of scholars say Fulbig, now 54, may be the victim of a tragic miscarriage of justice.
The split between legal and scientific opinion has grown with advances in genetic research since 2003, when Fulbig was convicted of three counts of murder and one of manslaughter.
A petition was signed to the governor of New South Wales in March last year calling for a pardon for Fulbig “based on significant positive evidence of natural causes of death” by 90 scientists, medical practitioners and related professionals, including two Nobel Laureates.
Attorney General Mark Speakman, who advises the governor on such petitions, said on Wednesday that the case required a transparent response, not an amnesty.
“I can understand very well why members of the public might shake their heads and roll their eyes in disbelief as to the number of opportunities that Mrs. Fulbig should have to clear her name, and [ask] Why would the justice system allow a convicted person to commit multiple murders, Speakman said.
“There is certainly enough questioning or skepticism that this new scientific evidence raises and warrants some form of intervention,” Spekman added.
Fulbig was sentenced to 30 years in prison and will be eligible for parole in 2028. None of her children survived until their second birthday.
Her first child, Caleb, was born in 1989 and died 19 days later in what the court decided was the least involuntary manslaughter. Her second child, Patrick, was 8 months old when he died in 1991. Two years later, Sarah died at the age of 10 months. In 1999, Fulbig’s fourth child, Laura, died at the age of 19 months.
The autopsy found that Laura had myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle that can be fatal. Patrick suffered from epilepsy and his death was attributed to airway obstruction due to a seizure and inflammation. The other two deaths were recorded as Sudden infant death syndrome.
The criminal case against Fulbig was circumstantial and relied on explanations of vague entries she wrote in her diary, which her estranged husband read and reported to the police.
In addition to the new scientific evidence, Fulbig’s attorney, Rani Rego, said she expects the new investigation will take into account reports from psychiatrists, psychologists and linguists that there were no confessions to the murders in the diary.
“We are confident that compelling evidence will free Kathleen Volbig and prove her innocence,” Rigaud said in a statement.
Speakman said he declined an invitation from the Australian Academy of Sciences, an independent organization that represents scientists, to explain the evidence against Fulbig’s guilt.
Anna Maria Arabia, the academy’s chief executive, said she respected the government’s decision to launch a second investigation although many scholars agreed there was “compelling evidence to justify the immediate release of Ms Fulbig”.
In 2015, Fulbig’s lawyers successfully petitioned for a judicial investigation into her convictions based on concerns raised by several forensic professionals.
Retired judge Reginald Blanche concluded in 2019 that Fulbig had been “insincere” and “unbelievable” in attempts to conceal her guilt.
Blanche also heard new evidence from Carola Venuesa, co-director of the Australian National University’s Center for Personal Immunity, that both the girls and their mother shared a recently discovered genetic mutation linked to abnormal heartbeats and sudden death in children.
In 2020, the journal Europace cardiology from Oxford University Press published the results of 27 scientists from Australia, the United States, Canada, France, Denmark and Italy describing the genetic mutation in Fulbeg girls. The team also reported that the boys carried different, rare variants of a gene that, when faulty, causes mice to die at an early age from epileptic seizures.
Retired NSW Chief Justice Tom Bathurst will conduct the new investigation. Speakman said he is likely to recommend that Fulbig be pardoned or her conviction overturned.
“Whatever the outcome of this investigation, it is an extraordinary tragedy,” said Speakman.