Follow ‘the science’? So far, as we reported in March 2021, the courts have resisted that call in the case of Kathleen Folbigg, convicted of murdering her children and in prison for the past 19 years. With more new expert evidence that is claimed to exonerate her, the conflict between ‘the science’ and ‘the courts’ has reached a point that reveals the weaknesses of both. Below, we publish extracts from Quentin McDermott’s exclusive report in The Australian (Oct 8, 2021).
The very diaries that helped convict child killer Kathleen Folbigg may now hold the key to overturning her convictions. Four leading experts who analysed Folbigg’s diaries have formally submitted their opinions to NSW Governor Margaret Beazley AC QC, and to NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman, as part of a petition originally lodged in March – and which has now been backed by 150 eminent scientists, science advocates and medical experts from around the world – calling for Folbigg to be pardoned and released.
“I am comfortable in describing Ms Folbigg as having been a very loving and attentive mother … ,” psychotherapist Dr Kamal Touma said. “After reading and analysing the minute particulars of Ms Folbigg’s diaries, and having met her for five analytical psychotherapy sessions, I cannot see anything in the diaries or from my sessions with Ms Folbigg to indicate that she harmed her children.”
Dr Touma, who had five audiovisual consultations with Folbigg, concludes that she is suffering from primary and secondary “dissociation” following traumas she endured in her childhood, including the death of her mother at the hands of her father, when she was 18 months old.
no evidence of premeditated murders
A second expert, US-based psychologist and textual analyst, Professor James W. Pennebaker, who has helped the FBI and CIA understand the language of kidnappers, terrorists and violent criminals, said: “I see absolutely no evidence to suggest that these were premeditated murders.
“I see no evidence that Kathleen Folbigg’s language … exhibited any signs of deception or attempts to cover anything up.
“I also see no sign that Folbigg is mentally unstable or is someone harbouring buried hostility or rage.”
A third expert, consultant psychiatrist Associate Professor Janine Stevenson, said: “Nowhere in her journals does she use agency verbs, such as ‘I hurt her’ … Throughout the journal Ms Folbigg is detailing all the steps she took to ensure the safety of her children.
“There is no anger, no aggression, only self-doubt.”
And a fourth expert, associate professor of linguistics Professor David Butt, said: “There is a likelihood that the courts and inquiry have misinterpreted the feelings of responsibility for not being a better mother as admissions of agency in the deaths of the children.”
Folbigg’s legal team has also resubmitted a report from clinical psychiatrist Dr Michael Diamond, who met Folbigg and assessed her before writing a report for the 2019 inquiry, in which he said: “I found no evidence to support a view that Ms Folbigg has suffered from psychotic illness, severe mood disorder consistent with homicidal conduct or any other brain injury that might affect her conduct so as to carry out homicidal acts.” Dr Diamond diagnosed Folbigg with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Dissociation is frequently observed with those who suffer from c-PTSD.
A sixth expert report, submitted by clinical psychologist Dr Sharmila Betts, questioned how the diaries could be “tantamount to confessions” as asserted by the Crown. “(That assertion) is misleading and unsupported by my reading of the diaries or the psychological literature on maternal adjustment, in both bereaved and non-bereaved mothers … In my opinion, the diaries do not contain any clear admission of guilt or confession of homicide,” Dr Betts said.
psychiatrist would not assist inquiry – Blanch
In 2019, the inquiry’s Commissioner Blanch dismissed the suggestion that experts could help him understand Folbigg’s diaries. “I would not be assisted at all in this inquiry by a psychiatrist who wanted to come along and tell me a) what the words of the diary mean, or b) about the fact that a mother who had lost her babies would be upset and emotional and so on,” he declared.
Instead, he said: “I am satisfied that the plain meaning interpretation of the diary entries carries the character contended by the Crown at the trial, of virtual admissions of guilt.”
He added: “Even making every allowance for her deep-seated psychological subjective experiences and childhood trauma, and any emotional state she may have been in at the time of writing the various entries, it is impossible to give the diary entries any meaning other than their ordinary English meaning.”
Macquarie University Professor Butt said the 175 pages of Folbigg’s diaries – which he studied – “do not at all convince me that the claim of a single plain meaning is sound”, and contends that the diaries could be “cherry-picked” to focus only on “those wordings that permitted some possibility of an interpretation of guilt”.
“It is not reasonable to claim that the diaries of Kathleen Folbigg support only one ‘damning’ interpretation,” he said.
None of the fresh expert opinions supports the view that the diaries reveal an intent on Folbigg’s part to harm or murder her children, or that they carry any admission that she did so.
“At first I did find some of her diary entries troubling but, when taken in the context of her mindset, that she basically hated herself and everything she did, they are a lot less troubling,” Assoc Prof Stevenson said.
“It is not possible for a therapist, let alone a lay person, to interpret the meaning of writings in a diary. They are personal, idiosyncratic, expressing fleeting feelings, imaginings, and very influenced by the emotions of the minute … The ‘meaning’ one day could be different the next, or there could be no meaning at all,” she said.
Comment: Does all the new scientific evidence, from 150 scientists around the world, provide grounds for reasonable doubt? How reliable is the notion that she would make her diary entries confessions to murder?