In the vast sprawling realm of human experience, there are very few things that could happen to a person more emotionally devastating and traumatising than the death of a child. Parents are instinctually driven to great lengths to protect their children. Even at the expense of their own lives. And when a child dies, the overwhelming grief is among the most intense feelings any human being can possibly endure. Now imagine that your child is not only dead, but that you stand accused of their murder. And not only that, but you are convicted of that murder and sent to prison for life. The ensuing years of incarceration and denunciation as a “baby-killer” must then be spent not only grieving the tremendous loss of your own child, but in fighting desperately for your own freedom. Because, in the face of one of the worst crimes a parent could possibly commit, you claim that you are innocent.
Today we shall investigate two Australian cases, that of Lindy Chamberlain and Kathleen Folbigg, where police accusations of infanticide were based largely on circumstantial evidence, where the ambiguities around the infants’ deaths frustrated attempts to uncover the truth, and where the defendants’ versions of events split the public between those who thought their stories were outlandish and those who thought they were eminently feasible.
In short, on today’s Casual Criminalist, we’ll be tackling what is colloquially known in alleged cases of infanticide as “The Dingo Defense.”
It is the 17th of August 1980. Lindy and Michael Chamberlain have arrived with their two sons, Aidan and Regan, and their two month old daughter Azaria, at Uluru [ooh-luh-roo] to do some camping. Michael Chamberlain was a Seventh-Day Adventist pastor and Lindy played the role of a winsome and dutiful pastor’s wife.
Uluru is a sandstone rock formation that dates back 540 million years to the Cambrian period when our direct ancestors were jawless fish. Uluru juts shockingly out of the ground, 1150 feet in the air, in an otherwise flat, arid, and sand-blasted Outback landscape. In 1980, the 9km (5 mile) natural edifice would more commonly be called “Ayer’s Rock,” named by an explorer after a nothing 19th century bureaucrat. Uluru is a name that comes from the local Aboriginal Pitjanjatjara [pit-jan-jat-jar-ah] dialect, a language I have named in the script for no particular reason other than to torture Simon and amuse the audience. Uluru as a word has no particular meaning, instead Uluru is the name of a local clan who claim ownership of the rock. Uluru has been a spiritual site for the local Anangu [an-an-goo] clans for as long as they have existed as a culture and resided in that area, with humans first crossing the massive desert to Uluru 10-20,000 years ago and the current culture forming somewhere between 300 and 1000 years ago. More recently, Uluru has become a political football for every politician in Canberra [can-bra] who likes to pretend they know even a single jot of Aboriginal history.
Since it’s what one did at Uluru, the Adventist pastor and his wife made camp there alongside dozens of other holiday-makers. Word had spread of a dingo infestation in the area. A dingo is basically a tamed wolf that never quite became a domestic dog (humans had been breeding wolves into dogs for nearly 20,000 years). Dingos are functionally the neighbourhood pitbull you are worried about turning vicious at the drop of a hat. Except in the Outback and minus roughly 4000 years of human selective breeding. Cute, but with a massive temper. In the wild, they are ruthless hunters. And if you think dingos sound bad, Simon, just wait till we look into drop-bears, which are a carnivorous sub-species of koala that inhabit the Blue Mountains and drop out of trees when attacking their prey.
For nearly a century, dingos in the area had been hunted and killed by men called “doggers” in order to keep the populations from getting dangerous to local settlers. From the 1920s onward, the local Anangu people also began to turn in dingo pelts in exchange for compensation. Over the next few decades, wildlife control was formalised into one of the responsibilities of the government-run park service. Unfortunately, in the late 1970s, the government had been woefully inefficient. The dingo population was out of control. Tourists at Uluru worsened this fact by feeding the seemingly cute and cuddly dogs, emboldening them to approach campsites. In the Australian winter of 1980, there were numerous reports of dingos attacking people. But so far most people had gotten away with just a few bites and scratches.
Quick PSA. Intelligent but dangerous mammals and marsupials swiftly learn to lose their fear of humans if they are treated to a free meal. Feeding them endangers others further down the line. And I don’t care how cute they are or if you want to lure them nearby so you can take pictures of them. If you visit the Outback, don’t feed the dingos. If you visit the Blue Mountains, don’t feed the drop-bears. And if you visit Melbourne [mel-bin], feed everyone. That bunch of hippies look like they haven’t had a decent meal since before they got their first nipple piercing at age 5. But that is just some typical inter-city Aussie banter, appropriate for this episode, for a taste of Aussie colour.
And some Aussie banter would certainly have commenced on the evening of the 17th of August 1980, as the local campers lit up their barbeques and cooked steak (not prawns or “shrimp” which Aussies generally don’t do on the barbeque) and tucked into their beer (and not Fosters, which is widely regarded as gnat’s piss and not even served in 99.999% of Aussie pubs). Michael and Lindy Chamberlain chatted with their friends for a bit while they cooked dinner. Being August and winter in the Southern Hemisphere, darkness had already closed in. While dinner was being prepared, Lindy decided it was time to put her two month old daughter down for the night in the Chamberlains’ nearby tent. A few minutes later, Lindy Chamberlain returned to the group and fed one of her sons a can of baked beans from the car. Not long after that, Lindy got up again saying that she heard a disturbance over at the tent. She headed over there again to check. According to Lindy, she saw a dingo standing outside the tent, which she shooed off and it quickly vanished into the darkness. A moment later, Lindy’s screams went up into the night air. Azaria, the two month old baby, was no longer there.
The local Australian revelries and good humour came to an abrupt stop.
Lindy immediately claimed that a dingo had taken the infant and carried it off into the night. Outside of the campsite there was no artificial lighting, and beyond the small huddle of humanity there existed nothing but miles and miles of a sea of pitch black. The local campers assembled all their torches and set off in search of the dingo, listening out for any cries of the child. They heard nothing. A panicked and sleepless night lay ahead. The authorities arrived and joined the search. Dawn came, and they still found nothing. The number of searchers swelled. Their haphazard searching methods became more disciplined and painstaking. But only a little. Still nothing. A week went by. The searchers found a small baby’s jumpsuit and singlet half-submerged in the red desert sand 4km or 2.5 miles from the campsite. The collar was stained with blood. It had belonged to baby Azaria. Her body was never found.
The Circus Begins
Four months later, on December 15th, in the small town of Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the Outback and the largest human settlement for hundreds of miles, an inquest into the disappearance of baby Azaria was held. The disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain had caught national attention and the inquest received lurid amounts of coverage by newspapers across the country, amplifying the feeling of tragedy. The inquest dragged on for two months.
Technology also intervened. In a historic first for Australia, the verdict of the inquest was broadcast live across Australia to a large viewership and an insincere and jaw-slobbering media. The inquest ruled that, given the jumpsuit found in the desert stained about the neck, Azaria was disappeared presumed dead. Furthermore, the inquest found that a dingo attack was the likely cause of death.
However, the magistrate threw a bit of a wrench into the proceedings. In his view, if a dingo did indeed kill the child, the remains should have been found and the clothes torn to shreds. Dingos are scavengers, so they eat anything they can find, but they are not large predators. In the view of the magistrate, even if the infant was tragically consumed by a wild animal like a dingo, some (or all) of the bones should still be out there. And before you say it, yes wild dogs consume bones, but even dingos do not, for instance, and I apologise for this, consume entire human skulls. In the view of the inquest, the remains must still be out there. And yet extensive searching found nothing. Furthermore the clothing was not found torn and strewn around the area but neatly put together. So the magistrate concluded, with little evidence, that, quote, “the body of Azaria was taken from the possession of the dingo, and disposed of by an unknown method, by a person or persons, name unknown.”
A person disposing of the body was a troubling thought. Why would a person find the body of an infant and simply dispose of it without alerting the authorities? One could conceivably see someone, unthinkingly, just solemnly burying the child without guessing the age of the remains or considering that someone might be looking for them. But this statement from the magistrate, televised across the nation, also set the fires of people’s imaginations regarding more nefarious reasons why anyone would want to quickly hide all signs of a body. Conspiracy theories began to germinate nationwide.
Suspicions of Infanticide
The local authorities were also dissatisfied with the results of the inquest. There are two interpretations as to why they were dissatisfied – one cynical and one generous.
The cynical interpretation was that the police had egg on their face from this entire affair. In the inquest, the magistrate criticized them harshly for their slow response to Azaria’s disappearance, especially in the crucial few hours after it happened, and also for their slapdash search which went an entire week before turning up anything. The government also had egg on their face, having let the dingo infestation around a popular tourist site in the Northern Territory get so far out of control that a defenseless child was killed. Not only killed, but taken from a tent at a campsite that would otherwise have been secure if dingos had not become so numerous and emboldened. All this was compounded by the blistering and humiliating fact that the entire nation had watched the verdict. Thus the authorities were motivated by self-interest to find another explanation for baby Azaria’s death.
And here is the generous interpretation. The facts of the case were highly ambiguous. There was a lack of any real physical evidence beyond the tiny jumpsuit and singlet underneath. And the fact that a dingo was present at the Chamberlains’ tent just before the disappearance entirely depended on the testimony of Lindy Chamberlain herself: the person who had last seen the child alive, and who in normal circumstances would be the prime suspect in a disappeared-presumed-dead case. And although Lindy had not clearly seen her child being carried by the dingo prior to checking within the tent, Lindy Chamberlain rigidly maintained that a dingo had indeed taken her baby.
But why would the police be so quick to suspect a pastor’s wife would harm her newborn child? When I opened this episode, I mentioned how parents will instinctively go to great lengths to protect their children, even at the expense of their own lives. Naturally, when I describe a parent’s instinctual protectiveness of their child, I speak in generalities. Roughly 2.5% of all murder victims are children. Of that number, approximately 60% of all child murders are committed by one or both of the parents.
And while men, testosterone-addled psychotic apes that they are, are responsible for roughly 90% of all murders generally, filicides committed by parents are shared closer to 50/50. Roughly 40% of all child-murders committed by a mother are done before the infant has reached one year of age. And roughly 75% of all murders of a newborn or infant under the age of one year old are carried out by the mother. Common motivations for infanticide are, number one, by a long lead, psychosis or mental instability brought on by post-partum depression, followed by a range of other mental illnesses that afflict a mother while she is the primary caregiver of an entirely dependent infant. When it comes to female serial killers, a disproportionate number of them choose infants as their victims.
In case you were wondering, the evolutionary hypothesis given for this discrepancy between male and female family violence is that for at least 300,000 of the past 315,000 years that Homo sapiens have existed (not to mention ancestral foraging species going back roughly 3 million years) mothers frequently had to practice infanticide. The reason was grim but simple: nomadic hunter-gatherer mothers could not carry and nurse too many children under the age of 5, all at once, while constantly on the move across hundreds of miles in search of food. Palaeolithic birth control and abortion were not really a thing. Only in sedentary agrarian societies starting 12,000 years ago could one care for many small children under 5 all at once. Thus in the same way that aggression, interpersonal, and intergroup violence seem to have become engrained in the darker and more visceral psyche of deranged men, the impulse toward infanticide seems to come out in a minority of women in particularly acute periods of mental illness. But textbook theorising that only applies to a tiny fraction of the human population, that is to say the 0.000012% of the population who kill their children while most parents would give their very lives for them, is not enough for police to lay charges for murder.
But then came the first physical evidence.
Ultraviolet photographs of Azaria’s jumpsuit seemed to indicate to pathologists that the blood-spatter was the result of an edged-weapon wielded by a human, not the jaws of an animal. Dingos, they asserted, could not make that kind of wound with their teeth. Most notably, the clothing was not torn to shreds, which one would expect to see from an animal attack, but only had a few small knicks and cuts. Ultraviolet light also showed the imprint of a possible bloody adult handprint on the garment of about Lindy Chamberlain’s size. Police also seized the Chamberlain’s car, a yellow Holden Torana. There, in the front seat, pathologists found signs of blood, more specifically foetal haemoglobin, that could only belong to a child under six months of age.
Police alleged that on the night of August 17th 1980, Lindy Chamberlain had not laid her two month old child in the tent, but had taken Azaria to the front seat of the yellow Holden. There she had cut the child’s throat with a pair of scissors, on the cutting-edge of which were also found traces of foetal haemoglobin. She concealed the body in a large camera case. Lindy then returned to the campfire to feed one of her young sons some baked beans she had retrieved from the car. A few minutes later, Lindy allegedly feigned hearing a disturbance by the family tent, headed over there and screamed repeatedly that a dingo had taken her baby. There was a vague awareness among the campers that there was a dingo infestation in the area at the time, so it was plausible that Lindy could have concocted this ruse to cover up the intended crime. Police alleged that Lindy splashed a bit of blood on the tent to simulate a dingo attack. In order to give a search-dog the scent of Azaria, Lindy opened the car door to it, while Azaria’s body was still in there. Later, in the middle of the night, as the few people who had initially joined the search were fanned out across miles of darkened desert, according to police, Lindy then removed the child’s body from the camera case and buried her in a non-descript patch of the wasteland. The clothes were found a week later, neatly placed. Months later, when ordered to turn the camera case over to the police, they asserted that Michael initially gave them the wrong one while he scrubbed the actual camera case clean, before finally turning in the right one.
A second inquest was held in September 1981, seven months after the conclusion of the first one. This time Lindy Chamberlain was charged with Azaria’s murder and Michael Chamberlain was charged with being an accessory after-the-fact for having become aware of what had happened and helping to cover up his wife’s alleged crime.
When the case went to trial in 1982, all witnesses who were at the campsite that night held firm with Lindy’s version of events. Many of them reported hearing or seeing dingos in the area. A nurse, Sally Lowe, who had been present on the evening in question even asserted that she heard a baby cry out after Lindy Chamberlain had returned from the tent to feed her son. By this point, according to the police theory, the child would already have been deceased. However, one witness’s testimony of the precise timing of her recollection of a noise certainly was not decisive exculpatory evidence. Eyewitnesses (or in this case ear-witnesses) are notoriously unreliable. The prosecution argued that Sally had been coached by the Chamberlains into believing she heard the child cry out after Lindy had returned to the campfire.
But the defense got stronger. Lindy and Michael’s legal team pointed out that the signs of foetal haemoglobin found in the Chamberlain’s car might have come, not from blood, but from spit or snot which would also show up under the haemoglobin test. And anyone who has ever spent five seconds in the presence of an infant child knows how common those substances could be and how they have a tendency to get everywhere. Furthermore, it would explain Lindy’s handprint on Azaria’s jumpsuit as she handled the child. She’d simply touched a bit of baby spittle. It was only a little more difficult, but plausible, to explain why the same haemoglobin was found on the cutting-edge of the scissors.
Furthermore, defense experts disputed the idea that the blood-spatter indicated Azaria’s throat had been cut with scissors and a dingo researcher was called in to assert that the teeth of a dingo could also inflict such a wound. A small number of canine furs were also found in the tent and on Azaria’s jumpsuit, though these could have come off a local domestic dog and/or been transferred to the clothes in the week they lay in the Outback. Furthermore the dingo expert asserted that a dingo was fully capable of removing an infant child from its clothing without damaging the garments, citing an example of a female dingo in captivity who had opened a package of meat without damaging the wrapping paper. This last anecdotal assertion did not seem to carry much weight with the jury.
Instead, the defense pivoted to assert that Wallace Goodwin, the search party member who had initially found the clothes, had found the jumpsuit and singlet lying side by side, instead of the singlet being tucked inside the jumpsuit. Constable Frank Morris disputed this version of events, saying that the singlet was tucked inside and only the top for buttons of the jumpsuit were undone. After briefly picking up the clothing to check inside for human remains, Morris claims he placed the clothing back on the ground exactly where he found them so they could be photographed. The singlet was discovered to be inside out within the jumpsuit. Lindy Chamberlain insisted that she never put the baby’s singlet on inside out, was always very careful to do so, and that this was not possible unless the police had tampered with the evidence. However, in the eyes of the jury this remained a simple exculpatory assertion by the defendant in a murder trial with no evidence to support it.
On cross-examination, Lindy’s story revealed an inconsistency. She claimed that in addition to a jumpsuit and singlet, she had clothed baby Azaria in a cardigan (or, more precisely, a matinee jacket) to keep her warm. No such item was found with the jumpsuit and singlet 4km from the campsite, nor was it found anywhere else.
Public spectacle unfortunately played a role. It did not help Lindy’s case, either with the jury or with the public, that she did not seem to grieve openly in the way that an innocent woman who had just lost her child was generally anticipated to grieve. She was stoic, argumentative. It also did not help that by the time Lindy stood trial she was pregnant again, implying to some that she had not properly taken time to mourn Azaria. The Australian public also were suspicious of Seventh-Day Adventists and insinuated that Lindy and Michael belonged to some kind of fringe Christian wacko sex cult. More absurdly, the public objected to the fact that Lindy had the habit of dressing Azaria in all black, implying some sort of weird Satanic influence, when in actual fact black and dark-navy dresses were becoming fashionable for infants in the early 1980s. A false anonymous tip helped to spread the rumour that the name “Azaria” meant “sacrifice in the wilderness” when in actual fact it was Hebrew for “helped by god.” All this speculation was circulated industriously by the press in order to sell papers.
And Lindy’s assertion that a dingo had killed her baby was routinely mocked as far-fetched. Dingos generally did not attack people and inflict serious injuries, much less kill them, and evidence of them hunting children was (and remains today) extremely rare. There was no evidence on the clothing that the child had been dragged across 4km of rough desert, and traces of dirt and vegetation on the clothing were consistent with those found around the camp, not in the area where the clothes were found. There were also major arguments between the defense and prosecution teams about whether a dingo could even carry an infant in its jaws over long distances without dragging it. Dingos are relatively small compared to wolves or even large dog breeds. They weigh only 20 to 30 pounds, which is 18-50% of what a grey wolf would weigh. To put this in perspective, a two month old baby weighs approximately 12 pounds, or roughly half the weight of a dingo itself. A dingo would also struggle to hold a child in its relatively small mouth. To much of the public in 1982, the claim of a dingo attack seemed more likely to be an excuse by a desperate mother in order to cover up a grisly crime.
Apparently the jury agreed. On the 29th of October 1982, Lindy was found guilty of the infanticide of Azaria Chamberlain and sentenced to life in prison. Her husband Michael was found guilty of being an accessory after the fact, since the jury did not believe he could have been ignorant of the murder and had tampered with crucial evidence, and he was given an 18 month suspended sentence.
On November 17th, Lindy was briefly taken out of prison to go to hospital to give birth to her fourth child, before being returned to prison for her lifelong incarceration.
The Matinee Jacket
Lindy Chamberlain’s legal team lodged an appeal of the verdict with the Federal Court on the grounds that there was sufficient reasonable doubt to nullify her conviction. This appeal was rejected in April 1983, which upheld there was substantial evidence to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Lindy had murdered her own child. In other words, the theory of a dingo attack was considered at the time to be an unreasonable and unlikely explanation. Lindy then lodged an appeal with the High Court of Australia. This appeal, too, was rejected in February 1984. By this point, Lindy had already spent 16 months in prison for a crime she said she did not commit.
Another two years went by with Lindy having exhausted all her options, and in all probability she would spend the rest of her natural life in prison. She was only in her thirties.
Then on the 26th of January 1986, British tourist David Brett fell to his death while climbing Uluru in the evening. His remains were discovered eight days later. His body had mostly been eaten by dingos. As police looked for any of Brett’s remains that may have been carried off by the dingos, they came across a small infant’s matinee jacket. Lindy Chamberlain insisted that it was the one she had put on Azaria when she put her child down for the night on August 17th 1980.
The jacket was found half-buried near a dingo lair.
On February 7th 1986, after nearly three and a half years imprisonment, Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison while the case of Azaria’s death was reopened. The Morling Royal Commission was launched in 1987 and found that the assertion Lindy had murdered her daughter was not proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The report did not, however, assert that a dingo had killed the child. To do so would have shifted the burden of proof onto Lindy to prove her innocence by providing an alternate explanation. To be clear, the judiciary were not claiming Lindy was innocent, or that a dingo did it, just simply that the prosecution’s evidence did not meet the standard of proof. Which it didn’t.
Again, we must return to the ambiguity of the entire situation. The most incriminating physical evidence, the foetal haemoglobin on the car, scissors, and clothing, could just as easily come from mucus as it could have come from blood. DNA testing did not yet exist. No traces of blood were found on the clothes Lindy had worn that night. There were no traces of blood in the camera case the police alleged that Lindy had used to transport the body out into the desert. The blood-stained jumpsuit did not conclusively indicate one way or another whether the spatter was from a human or an animal based attack. There was no clear indication one way or another how those clothes were transported to the desert. Dingo or not, this circumstantial evidence should not have been enough to convict.
In September 1988, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned all the convictions. In November, A Cry in the Dark (also known as Evil Angels) starring Meryl Streep faithfully depicted Lindy’s version of events, which, in contrast to public hostility in 1982, completely swung public sympathy her way, and got Streep nominated for an Oscar. In 1992, the government paid the Chamberlains 1.3 million dollars in compensation for the inconvenience of having their lives utterly ruined by the justice system. A third inquest was held in December 1995. This confirmed the quashing of the murder verdict and registered the cause of Azaria Chamberlain’s death as “unknown.” The evidence in favour of the dingo story was almost as circumstantial as the murder theory. While it was highly conceivable a 30 pound dingo could have potentially carried a 12 pound infant to its lair at Uluru, removed the matinee jacket, then later removed the jumpsuit and singlet without excessively damaging them, 4km out in the desert, while the child’s remains were never found, it could not be confirmed. One really needed the remains with clear markings of a dingo attack or Lindy to directly and clearly see her child being taken.
Almost two decades passed. Lindy was still understandably dissatisfied her name had not been completely cleared and was distrustful of the judicial system. On the 30th anniversary of Azaria’s death in 2010, Lindy launched an online campaign to have Azaria’s death certificate changed to reflect that she had been killed by a dingo. With large-scale and sympathetic public support and considerable political pressure, a fourth inquest was held between 2011 and 2012. The existing evidence from 1995 was re-interpreted again. Additional anecdotal evidence was used from more recent attacks by dingos on children on Fraser Island, indicating that yes, indeed, sometimes dingos tried to kill infants. On the basis of this evidence, the coroner ruled that, yes, without a reasonable doubt, a dingo had definitely killed Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru on the night of August 17th 1980, officially apologised to Lindy and Michael, and changed the cause of death on Azaria’s death certificate.
While 99% of the Australian public now sympathise thoroughly with Lindy, and it seems quite probable that a dingo did indeed kill Azaria Chamberlain, the verdict of this fourth inquest actually generated some public criticism for being a PR stunt on part of the Northern Territory government rather than a calm measured act of forensics and jurisprudence. Critics argued there was simply not enough evidence to confirm a dingo attack beyond a reasonable doubt, any more than there was to justify prosecution of the Chamberlains in the first place. By repeating the same mistake twice, the Australian judicial system potentially diminished rather than repaired public trust in its processes.
Aside from questions of legal precedent and procedure, I am quite glad that Lindy, convicted of a crime when there was far too much reasonable doubt, was eventually released. She did not have to spend her entire life in prison for a crime she almost certainly did not commit, grieving for her child. I can scarcely think of a situation more awful. Nevertheless, because of a miscarriage of justice, she had to spend years in that nightmare scenario. And that would inflict a wound that can never be fully healed.
Kathleen Folbigg & “The Dingo Defense”
The “Dingo Defense” is a plausible but unverified explanation for how an infant has died, which is provided as an alternative to murder. That explanation need not even be the most likely explanation, it could even be considered outlandish with a low probability of happening, but it must at least be plausible. The Dingo Defense in cases of infanticide only has power in situations where the conviction for infanticide is based on circumstantial evidence and where there is possible room for reasonable doubt. And quite a few infanticide cases are ambiguous due to the ease with which an infant can be murdered without leaving many signs of foul-play. The alternate explanation does not need to be proven, but just needs to have enough evidence to bring reasonable doubt upon a case. We shall now examine another Australian case of infanticide where one of the most spectacular and improbable of dingos has been trotted out, by Nobel Prize winners no less, to instil greater reasonable doubt in a case that had previously been thought open and shut.
Kathleen Folbigg was born June 14th 1967 to father Thomas Britton, a construction worker, and her mother Kathleen Donovan. A 2019 psychological report surmised that Kathleen had likely been sexually abused by her father during infancy. A year and a half later, on the evening of January 8th 1969, Britton murdered Donovan by stabbing her 24 times. One report suggests the motive was that Britton was furious over his partner’s severe neglect of their infant daughter. The father was arrested the same night. He served 15 years in jail for murder then was deported back to England.
Kathleen was briefly placed into foster care for a year while she was still quite young. In 1970 she was moved to an orphanage, Bidura [bid-dyur-ah] Children’s Home. Two months later, she was transferred to a permanent foster care placement which lasted until she was a young adult. There is no evidence or serious allegation that Kathleen was abused during her time as a foster child, but I cannot verify this. Conversely, her foster parents reported that between the age of 2 and 3 Kathleen had severe temper tantrums, aggression, and crying fits, and had difficulty regarding her intellectual growth. As she grew older, she became very isolated and withdrawn, is reported trying to dominate her siblings, is reported as a frequent and habitual liar, and developed what a child welfare report called “problematic sexualised behaviours as a very young child.” All of which points to some psychological damage instilled in her by the trauma of her past. Regrettably standard fare for the Casual Criminalist.
During a breakdown in her relationship with her foster mother, Kathleen dropped out of high school and moved out. She worked a series of unskilled jobs. At age 18, Kathleen met Craig Folbigg, aged 23 at a club in Newcastle, New South Wales. They married two years later in 1987.
Four Deaths and a Diary
Kathleen and Craig Folbigg’s first child, Caleb, was born on February 1st 1989. The baby boy breathed noisily and was diagnosed with a mild case of laryngomalacia [lah-ringe-oh-mal-lace-ya], where overly soft infant cartilage in the upper larynx collapses inward during inhalation. The doctor said Caleb would grow out of this soon, as he aged. 19 days later, Caleb was put to sleep in a room adjoining the one Kathleen Folbigg shared with Craig. Caleb fussed from midnight until 2am, after which Kathleen Folbigg noted in her diary “finally asleep!” before going back to bed herself.
Caleb was found dead by his mother a few hours later. Caleb’s death was officially attributed to SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, with comments about complications with laryngomalacia. In short, Caleb’s mild condition was hypothesised to have caused him to suffocate in his crib.
A few months later, Kathleen Folbigg became pregnant again. Her second son, Patrick, was born June 3rd 1990. Kathleen Folbigg later wrote in her diary: “This was the day that Patrick Allan David Folbigg was born. I had mixed feelings this day. Whether or not I was going to cope as a mother or whether I was going to get stressed out like I did last time. I often regret having Caleb and Patrick, only because your life changes so much and, maybe, I’m not a person who likes change. But we will see.”
Patrick was tested after his birth and was shown to be perfectly normal and healthy. Craig took informal paternity leave to help out with his care. Four months later, on October 18th 1990, there was some sort of incident at the Folbigg home. Craig woke up to the sound of his wife screaming. Patrick had gone limp and was not breathing. The father used CPR on the infant, and he was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. Whatever had happened, Patrick now had brain damage. He was diagnosed with epilepsy and cortical blindness. Exactly four months later, on February 18th 1991, Craig Folbigg was at work when his wife phoned him. “It’s happened again,” she said. Patrick had died. He was recorded of dying from asphyxiation due to an airway obstruction from an epileptic fit brought on by an “encephalopathic [en-sep-pah-loh-path-ick] disorder of unknown cause” or in other words brain damage which the doctors had no idea how he had received.
A year and eight months later, on October 14th 1992, Kathleen Folbigg gave birth to her third child, a daughter named Sarah. On August 25th 1993, Sarah was taken to the GP because she had a standard croup cough and was started on a round of antibiotics. She died on August 29th, four days later. The autopsy found Sarah had a congested uvula hematoma and profuse streptococcus [strept-oh-cock-us] in the lungs, which had stopped her from breathing. Kathleen Folbigg wrote in her diary, “Sarah left us at 1am,” but the child had not been found dead until hours after that time.
Several years went by without the Folbiggs attempting another child. In late 1996, Kathleen Folbigg again became pregnant. On January 1st 1997, she wrote in her diary: “Another year gone and what a year to come. I have a baby on the way which means major personal sacrifice for both of us. But I feel confident about it all going well this time. I am going to call for help this time and not attempt to do everything myself anymore. I know that was the main reason for all my stress before and stress made me do terrible things.”
A month later, on February 4th 1997, Folbigg wrote in her diary: “Still can’t sleep. Seem to be thinking of Patrick and Sarah and Caleb. Makes me seriously wonder whether I’m stupid or doing the right thing by having this baby. My guilt for how responsible I feel for them all haunts me. My fear of it happening again haunts me. My fear of Craig and I surviving if it did haunts me as well.”
Laura Folbigg was born on August 7th 1997. Evidently, Kathleen was smitten with her new child. On October 25th, Folbigg wrote in her diary: “I think Laura is beautiful compared to Sarah – she was cute, but Laura has a special look about her. Her slight difference in looks gives her a beautiful face. Not just pretty, cute, and cuddly, but gorgeous and beautiful. Well so far anyway. Looking at a video, Sarah was boyish looking. Laura has definite feminine features. They are chalk and cheese. And, truthfully, just as well. Wouldn’t of handled another one like Sarah. She’s saved her life by being different.”
And then a couple weeks later, on November 9th, Folbigg wrote: “Craig has a morbid fear about Laura. Well, I know there’s nothing wrong with her. Nothing out of the ordinary anyway. Because it was me, not them. Think I can handle her fits of crying better than I did with Sarah. With Sarah all I wanted was her to shut up. And one day she did.”
And again on December 8th: “Had a bad day today. Lost it with Laura a couple of times. She cried most of the day. Why do I do that? I must learn to read her better. She’s pretty straightforward. She either wants to sleep or doesn’t. Got to stop placing so much importance on myself. Must try to release my stress somehow. I’m starting to take it out on her. Bad move. Bad things and thoughts happen when that happens. It will never happen again.”
And again on December 31st: “Getting Laura to next year ought to be fun. She’ll realise a party is going on. And that will be it. Wonder if the battle of the wills will start with her and I then. We’ll actually get to see. She’s a fairly good natured baby, thank goodness, it will save her from the fate of her siblings. I think she was warned.”
And again on January 28th, 1998: “Very depressed with myself, angry and upset. I’ve done it. I lost it with her. I yelled at her so angrily that it scared her. She hasn’t stopped crying. Got so bad I nearly purposely dropped her on the floor and left her. I was restrained enough to put her on the floor and walk away. Went to my room and left her to cry. Was gone probably only five minutes but it seemed like a lifetime. I feel like the worst mother on this earth. Scared that she’ll leave me now. Like Sarah did. I knew I was short tempered and cruel sometimes to her and she left. With a bit of help.”
A year went by. On February 25th 1999, Laura was taken to the doctor with a respiratory infection. She was treated with paracetamol and pseudo-ephedrine. 23 hours before she died, 18 month old Laura was videotaped by her father swimming and giggling in the backyard pool. It was Aussie summer. She seemed perfectly healthy. She displayed none of the symptoms of the myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscles, which has been alleged to have killed her. Kathleen was not with her child in the videotape. She had kept her distance from her, wanting nothing to do with Laura after she “lost it with her” the day before, knocking the child over. The next morning, while Craig Folbigg was at work, Kathleen made a triple-zero call to the ambulance service. She said, “My baby’s not breathing. I’ve had three SIDS already. I’ve had three go already.” On February 27th 1999, Laura Folbigg died.
Not long afterward, Craig Folbigg found his wife’s diary. He called the police.
Craig Folbigg said that over the years it had sometimes occurred to him that his wife, Kathleen, might have had something to do with the deaths of their four children. Her acute distress immediately after each death was intense. She would stand by the crib screaming. But after each child was declared dead in hospital, Craig Folbigg says his wife’s reaction became relatively detached and disengaged. She would immediately pack all their belongings away, taking photos out of frames, and off the mantlepiece. Kathleen would never mention their names to Craig again. Whenever the tragedies came up in conversation, Kathleen then engaged in what Craig called “her broken sparrow routine” where she would seem to “cry on cue.”
When Craig uncovered Kathleen’s diary and took it to the police, several passages like those quoted above raised red flags about foul-play. They opened a murder investigation and questioned Kathleen. They also planted several listening devices in the Folbigg home. Kathleen was recorded walking around the home rehearsing her evidence for court and practicing whether she cried at the right occasions.
Detective Bernie Ryan said, “The investigation has been an uphill battle because it’s very hard to believe that a mother can kill her children. If we could have found an illness, or some disorder that caused the death of these children, we would have gladly found it. We searched and unfortunately we couldn’t find anything. All we found, everything we found, led us to Kathleen Folbigg.”
Kathleen Folbigg was arrested April 19th 2001, two years after Laura’s death, and was charged with four counts of murder. Her trial began in early 2003 and lasted 7 weeks.
The prosecution said she killed her children by smothering them during periods of frustration. There was no physical evidence of intentional suffocation. This is because signs of smothering are extremely difficult to discern. Infants do not require high amounts of pressure and do not have the strength to move out of harm’s way. Markings are rare compared to older children or adults, who will instinctually begin to struggle. One possible sign is frequent visits to the hospital before the death – from previous attempts. But this would only apply to Patrick, and none of the other children. Another sign of intentional suffocation might be secondary injuries from child abuse, but these were largely absent from the Folbigg case. Sometimes when a child is smothered there is a presence of blood in the nose and mouth from overly applied pressure, but not always. Intentional smothering is sometimes done during the day or evening, whereas most SIDS cases occur overnight – indeed two of the Folbigg deaths happened during the day. Finally, a natural illness may show symptoms in the hours before death, whereas victims of intentional smothering are seen being perfectly healthy right up to the moment they are deceased. None of things, to be clear, absolutely none of them, are conclusive indications of intentional smothering. Generally speaking, it is a phantom crime, difficult to confirm.
SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, is what is known as a “diagnosis of exclusion.” Meaning it is only assigned once coroners have failed to find and definitively confirm a specific physical cause of death, and after an investigation into foul-play has been completed. One may surmise in addition to a SIDS diagnosis the likely cause of death, but this is not the same thing as confirmation. In other words, SIDS is not a disease in itself, but a diagnostic shrug of the shoulders. SIDS accounts for roughly half of infant deaths globally. Of those cases, an estimated 5% of them are thought to be the result of intentional suffocation.
The prosecution’s case rested on the idea that it was highly unlikely that four infants in the same family would suddenly die with the only witness being the mother. This harkened back to what is called Meadow’s Law, named after a British paediatrician, Sir Samuel Roy Meadow, famous for research on Munchausen-by-Proxy, and one of the UK’s foremost experts on child abuse. Meadow’s Law is, “One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious, and three is murder.” This statement is based on the extreme unlikelihood that multiple SIDS cases would occur in the same household. In the UK case of Sally Clark, where in 1999 she was accused of murdering her two sons, Meadow, as an expert witness, took the probability of one SIDS death occurring in an affluent non-smoking household, which is 8500 to 1, and squared it to show the odds of two such deaths occurring, which is 73 million to 1. In Folbigg’s case, the odds of three deaths occurring would be 5.3 quadrillion to one, and four deaths would be 28 nonillion to one. One can see how the cool-handed logic of Meadow’s law would appeal to the mind of a scientist.
Here’s the problem. Meadow’s reasoning falls into what we’d call “the prosecutor’s fallacy.” We cannot confuse the extreme unlikelihood of something occurring with the likelihood of someone’s guilt, without taking into account all surrounding circumstances. If we didn’t, there’d be a criminal investigation every time someone was struck by lightning. In a population of millions, with thousands of different physiological and environmental circumstances, extremely unlikely events can still occur. And, lest it be forgotten, the act of parents murdering their own child is also an extremely unlikely event, or roughly 1 in 6.5 million. In the case of Sally Clark, where Meadow gave evidence, it later was discovered that her children had died of natural causes, the probability of 73 million to 1 be damned. This completely ruined Meadow’s reputation. Sally Clark meanwhile fell into alcoholism after the ordeal and died in 2007. But during Folbigg’s trial in 2003, Meadow’s Law was not yet discredited.
Psychological reports on Kathleen Folbigg diagnosed her with a narcissistic personality derived from childhood trauma. Lack of love in childhood allegedly led to an inflated ego which made Folbigg see her kids as possessions rather than separate entities. The psychologist noted that it is difficult to tell which narcissism cases are dangerous and which parents are just incompetent. In terms of contributing factors, roughly 14% of women in Australia suffer from post-partum depression while only 0.16% of them suffer from post-partum psychosis. The court psychologist said that Folbigg did not have an anti-social personality disorder or psychotic illness, that she was not a risk to the public, but “she’s a potential critical risk to any children she might have.”
The sequence of events of each child’s death would be consistent with the suffocation hypothesis. All the physical maladies could also be explained by suffocation too. Then there were the diary entries. The most important piece of circumstantial evidence for Kathleen Folbigg’s guilt. Over the course of several years, she made several incriminating statements which seemed to imply that she was harming and murdering her children. For her part, Folbigg said at the time “They aren’t literal. Definitely not a window into my mind.” Evidently, Folbigg did not intend for her diaries to be discovered and read by anyone else. They were typically hidden. And in one journal entry, Folbigg wrote, “tell you what, I don’t think anyone could read this and find out all my secrets. I write like a five year old.” The question was, in addition to the suspicious circumstances of the deaths of the four children, were these diary entries enough to remove any reasonable doubts of her guilt?
The defense said Folbigg did not harm her kids. They claimed she was a caring mother, and pointed to journal entries that showed Folbigg’s care and concern. They brought in character witnesses to attest to Folbigg being a lovely person. The defense also pointed out that there were no direct admissions to the killings in Folbigg’s diary entries, and suggested that the language used could be chalked up to a grieving mother’s guilt. They pointed out how genuinely distraught Folbigg always appeared to be when ambulance and police responders arrived after another child’s death. And, of course, they reiterated multiple times that there was no physical evidence that Folbigg suffocated her children.
On the question of reasonable doubt, and the possibility all four children died of natural causes, the prosecution told the jury, “I can’t disprove that one day some piglets might be born with wings and that they might fly. Is that a reasonable doubt? No. There has never been in the history of medicine any case like this. It is preposterous. It is not a reasonable doubt. It is a fantasy, and, of course, the Crown does not have to disprove a fanciful idea.”
In the end, it was the suspicious diary entries that removed all reasonable doubt from the jury. Short of a full written confession, those entries could not be more explicit. Without those entries, it is likely the case would not even have been brought to court. On May 21st 2003, Folbigg was found guilty on 3 counts of murder, one count of manslaughter, and one count of maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm. She was given 40 years. On appeal, February 17th 2005, the sentence was reduced to 30 years, and 25 years without parole. Due to the nature of her crimes, putting her at the lowest of the low in the hierarchy of the women’s prison system, Folbigg was placed in protective custody to prevent her from being beaten or killed by the other inmates.
Inquiring into Folbigg’s Diaries
In 2015, 13 years after Folbigg’s imprisonment, her lawyers were preparing a petition to the Governor of New South Wales to open an inquiry into the convictions. The lawyers approached a professor at the Centre for Personalised Immunology at Australian National University asking her to sequence the genes of Folbigg and her children to see if some sort of genetic mutation could have caused a series of natural deaths. It goes without saying that this sort of work would take time.
Meanwhile the petition was submitted to the Governor, largely castigating Meadow’s Law and the way it was used in the trial of Kathleen Folbigg. On August 22nd 2018, the NSW Attorney-General announced the opening of an inquiry in order to resolve doubts about how the treatment of the likelihood of four deaths in the same family may have impacted the court proceedings.
In jail, Folbigg was gradually weaned off protective custody and had become what is called a “den mother” gradually winning over staff and fellow inmates. In 2017 she was convicted of beating a fellow inmate for taking a toaster into her cell, which Folbigg had pointed out was not allowed. Otherwise, Folbigg’s prison track record had been pretty good.
During the inquiry, Folbigg was questioned over her diary entries. She said, “I didn’t kill my children and these diaries are just a record of how depressed I was and how many issues I was having. Those diaries are written from a point of me always blaming myself. I blamed myself for everything. I took so much of the responsibility because that is, as mothers, what you do.” When asked about the use of the phrase “dangerous mood”, Folbigg said “dangerous mood means depression to me. When I’m depressed or a little cranky, don’t come near me.” On the phrase about Laura “saving her life by being different” from her daughter Sarah, Folbigg said “It was a mystical representation. That’s me reflecting on my beliefs, as in karma and the children talking to each other, and to god, and all those sorts of beliefs that I had. It was a wrong belief and a warped belief, but I had a belief that my children had decided they weren’t staying with me anymore, and I did not understand why.” When asked about the “terrible things” she might do, Folbigg explained, “it could be me placing my child down to let her cry for even 30 seconds. That’s a terrible thing in my view.”
The prosecution said in the inquiry that these were “fanciful answers which cannot be believed.” Folbigg replied, “It’s no concern to me whether it can or cannot be believed.” The prosecution pressed her, “You accept that the ordinary plain meaning of those words which you have put together in your diaries can objectively be seen as different?” Folbigg replied, “Yes but I was trying to explain that, at the time of writing my diaries, in the use of those words, that’s not how my mind worked.” To which one media observer wryly remarked, “How very convenient.”
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Dingo
Meanwhile, the team sequencing the Folbigg genes had expanded to 27 scientists from Australia, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the USA, and France. In May 2019, while the inquiry was still ongoing, the team discovered that the two daughters, Sarah and Laura, had a mutation in their “Calm2” gene that could cause heart arrythmia and cardiac arrest. Sarah’s heart condition would have been triggered by her treatment with antibiotics at the time, and Laura’s would have been triggered by her treatment with paracetamol and pseudo-ephedrine. The odds of this gene mutation were exceedingly rare. Only 75 people in the world are known to carry mutations in their Calm1, Calm2, or Calm3 genes that have been shown to be lethal in children. Nevertheless, here was a plausible explanation for the death of the Folbigg girls. Kathleen Folbigg had found her dingo.
As for the two boys, Caleb and Patrick, the scientific theory is still in development. Geneticists from around the world are investigating whether a mutation in their BSN gene, inherited from their father Craig, could have led to their deaths. Such a mutation is known to cause epileptic seizures in mice. While shakier than the first explanation, this nevertheless was another dingo. Scientists are able to explain the natural deaths of all four Folbigg children in a way that would have seemed impossible during the trial in 2003.
These results were duly introduced at the inquiry.
A prosecution expert, Jonathan Skinner, said that it would be very unusual to have Calm2 mutations being responsible for the death of two people at such young ages while another carrier, Kathleen Folbigg, has been perfectly healthy and remains so into her 50s. The defense countered that lethal Calm2 mutations may have asymptomatic carriers.
At the end of the inquiry in July 2019, Justice Reginald Blanch conceded that due to the recent genetic evidence it was, quote, “plausible that Sarah and Laura may have had a cardiac condition, and that raises a possibility that it caused their deaths.” Nevertheless, Blanch said it was “an exceptional clinical scenario” that had not been confirmed as cause of death, though an entirely plausible theory. According to the judge, what was written in the diaries and what he deemed to be, quote, “Folbigg’s lies and obfuscations,” when questioned about those entries, did not remove Folbigg’s guilt for the murder of her children from beyond a reasonable doubt. The conviction was upheld and Folbigg remained in prison.
In October 2019, Folbigg’s legal team a called for another review alleging bias in the inquiry. Justice Blanch was accused in public of being a misogynist who ignored scientific evidence. Folbigg’s legal team began the process of lodging another motion with the New South Wales Court of Appeal against her convictions. They argued that the new genetic evidence created enough reasonable doubt to quash them.
The results of the genetic research were published in November 2020 in a high profile academic journal. Meanwhile on New Year’s Day 2021, after Kathleen Folbigg was transferred to a new prison, she was beaten by a fellow inmate and given a black eye and several bruises due to her reputation as a, quote, “baby-killer.” Folbigg said of the incident, “It took me over 16 years to obtain some respect from the staff and inmates at my last prison, and show them I am nothing like all the reports, if you bother to get to know me. Here I am not even given the opportunity. Very sad.”
On March 4 2021, 90 prominent Australian scientists and medical professionals signed a petition to the New South Wales Governor asking her to pardon Folbigg. They pointed out there were now medical and scientific explanations for the deaths of Folbigg’s children. The petition said, “Ms. Folbigg’s case also establishes a dangerous precedent as it means that cogent medical and scientific evidence can simply be ignored in preference to subjective interpretations of circumstantial evidence.”
The weaknesses in the petition’s arguments were as follows, in ascending order of severity. One, the academics placed too much weight on their qualifications and publications as an argument in and of itself. Two, the research into the BSN mutation theory explaining the deaths of the two boys is more tenuous and the research is still ongoing. Three, and worst of all, the petition repeatedly uses the line that there was no physical evidence of smothering at autopsy. As medical professionals they almost certainly know that evidence of intentional suffocation in infants is difficult to discern by a standard autopsy, if not exceedingly rare to find.
The NSW Court of Appeals rejected Folbigg’s motion on March 24th 2021.
Professor Peter Schwartz, world-renowned cardiac genetics researcher, said, “Whenever someone dies without obvious explanations, and a molecular autopsy identifies a mutation known to cause sudden death, then this is sufficient to diagnose that particular disease. I have no idea whether Kathleen Folbigg is innocent or guilty, but I think she was sentenced on the basis of incomplete evidence and incorrect opinions. A fair judicial system would acknowledge this and look again at the case on the basis of the novel evidence. Then it is entirely possible that the court will confirm the original sentence, but without ignoring the new facts.”
And this touches on the nub of the issue. The genetics research has provided Kathleen Folbigg with a plausible explanation for the death of all four of her children. A dingo defense. It does not really matter how likely this explanation is, or whether or not it can be confirmed to have happened. The question is whether it creates enough reasonable doubt to quash Folbigg’s convictions.
From 1986 to 2011, the dingo account that exonerated Lindy Chamberlain was not confirmed by any coroner or inquest. What kept her out of prison after the Morling Commission in 1988 was the idea that, even without the dingo story, there was enough reasonable doubt in the case to overrule her conviction. The question in the Kathleen Folbigg case is, regardless of the genetic explanation, was the rest of the evidence sufficient enough to convict beyond a reasonable doubt?
Really, it comes down to those strange and suspicious diary entries. As damning as they seem, I honestly do not have a strong opinion on whether or not a jury could or should convict off the back of them. And on this decision hangs the balance of a potentially innocent woman being locked in prison against possibly letting the unrepentant murderer of four children walk free. And it reminds us of William Blackstone’s argument that “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
So I’ll leave you with what a linguistics expert who was called to the 2019 inquiry to look at the diary entries said, while you make up your own minds: “In my opinion, they had a singular plain damning meaning, that is, they were a virtual confession. And the frustrating issue for me was that I couldn’t be certain. And I can’t see why other people are so certain. Even if someone confesses in writing, you as a police officer, or as a prosecutor, or as a lawyer of any kind, would still want to test it. Are they making this stuff up? I’m not saying that the guilty reading is impossible, and I’m not saying its totally unreasonable, what I am saying is it does not seem safe to me to presume that there’s only one meaning, and that meaning is consistent with the deaths of four children.”
One. The crusade to secure Folbigg’s exoneration or pardon continues on part of her legal team, the scientific researchers, and her public supporters. In Australia, public opinion is split. The question of her guilt or innocence has also become politicised. Because it’s 2021, so of course it has.
Two. The 1988 movie A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep, dramatizing Lindy Chamberlain’s ordeal, is responsible for immortalising the phrase, “The dingo took my baby!” which Streep yells multiple times in the film. Very few Americans actually saw the film, which did quite poorly at the box office. Nevertheless, the phrase was contorted into “A dingo ate my baby!” which in the USA is the second most common phrase used to refer to Australians after, “Throw another shrimp on the barbie.” The phrase “a dingo ate my baby” has featured in Seinfeld, the Simpsons, Two and a Half Men, Frasier, Late Night with Craig Ferguson, Supernatural, Family Guy, the Rugrats Movie, Tropic Thunder, and many other shows and movies. I honestly wonder how many Americans who use this phrase are aware that it refers to the tragic death of an infant and the wrongful incarceration of her mother.
Three. There is no such thing as drop-bears, which were mentioned at the start of this episode. It is a classic joke Australians play on tourists and newcomers banking on their fear of the wildlife here. It is a joke played to a degree and frequency that I actually find annoying. But the Australians in our audience would be disappointed if I didn’t try at some point. And I know that some of them out there will be having giddy fits of joy in front of their screens if I managed to fool you. And if I didn’t, congratulations, Simon, on your robust critical thinking. Either way, please don’t fire me. Not until I’ve pitched you my concept for an April Fools episode!