Help not hate

There’s a record I need to set straight.

It’s about a story I wrote for www.mamamia.com.au this week. The story concerned my friend, Kathleen Folbigg. Kathleen is serving 26 years in jail for the murder of her four children.

And there’s something I need to clarify. Actually, there’s a lot of things.

OK, here goes … I wasn’t championing Kathleen Folbigg’s innocence. I was saying she was failed by our justice system. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict her. After reading a book called Murder, Medicine and Motherhood, written by the Canadian academic Emma Cunliffe about Kathy’s case, I’m convinced she didn’t get a fair trial.

The point of my story was to make people wonder “what if?” To consider the possibility an innocent woman might be behind bars.

My initial submission to Mamamia was a fairly dry affair. So they requested some colour on what it’s like to visit a prison. I shared a few anecdotes, including one about about a woman in fuzzy bed socks saying f*@k a lot. And I came across as a flibbertigibbet. Serves me right.

My story at Mamamia attracted many heated comments. And not just about me being a flibbertigibbet. The majority were from people who believe Kathy is a psychopath who murdered her babies and should rot in jail. It amazes me how adamant people can be with their opinions when they haven’t followed the case closely and don’t know the woman involved. Some of them even mix her up with Kelli Lane in their rush to condemn.

These people obviously live in a very black and white world that doesn’t allow for any grey. I’m a grey-area girl. I know a jury has convicted Kathy as a serial killer, but there have been developments that cast doubts over the evidence they were given.

And, yes, I know Kathy’s diaries seem pretty damning. They disturb me too. I’ve told her that if she gets another day in court, she needs to take the stand and explain them. Cunliffe’s book has convinced me the diaries were the only thing that convicted Kathy. All evidence presented was circumstantial – there was no physical evidence she had suffocated her children.

I haven’t asked Kathy to explain her diaries to me because it feels intrusive and ghoulish. Plus, there’s not a lot of privacy when I visit her in prison. I worry that she will be overheard by guards, other prisoners and their visitors. Things that Kathy has said in the past have been twisted in the media and I’d like to avoid that happening again. So I tend to stick to lighter subjects, like changes to the prison buy-up system (the way prisoners purchase stuff like shampoo and deodorant and snacks), her new job, her new cellmate etc.

Some commenters question why I started visiting her in prison when we weren’t that close at school. They wonder about my motivations. I started visiting Kathy because I felt compassion for her as a former schoolmate. Pure and simple. Plus, we weren’t exactly strangers to each other at high school – her boyfriend was one of my boyfriend’s best mates. I could have left Kathy to her lonely prison life, but I decided to reach out. And I’ve since chosen to become an advocate for her getting another day in court. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it felt like the right one.

At last count there were more than 200 comments on my Mamamia story. Many of those comments are disturbingly similar to the stuff people said about Lindy Chamberlain when she was on trial. People refused to believe a dingo had stolen Lindy’s baby. They firmly believed she killed her own child with a pair of nail scissors. She spent three years in jail for a crime she didn’t commit.

At the time of the investigation into Azaria’s death, the Northern Territory police referred to Lindy as being “cunning”, “a nut”, “a religious nut”, “someone with killer eyes”. As they searched for a motive, they came up with increasingly bizarre theories: it was planned by either Lindy or Michael or both of them; one of their sons did it and they covered it up; they wanted fame; they wanted money; Lindy was jealous of her baby; Lindy had post-natal depression.

Commenters at Mamamia use simliar language when referring to Kathy. They call her “evil”, “cold” and “manipulative” because she doesn’t fit within their acceptable framework of how a grieving mother would behave.

The commenters accept the testimonies presented in Kathy’s case. So did the jury who convicted Lindy. After the first inquest, police commissioned British forensic pathologist James Cameron to examine Azaria’s jumpsuit. He found it had been cut by scissors and there was evidence of a wet, bloodied handprint. He was later proved wrong.

In Murder, Medicine and Motherhood, Emma Cunliffe concludes there was a “preparedness of expert witnesses to generalise extemporaneously – and wrongly – about the state of medical knowledge. The evidence that medical literature did not reliably report any case in which three or more infants from the same family died of natural causes was simply incorrect. Research published since Folbigg’s trial has cast further doubt on the criminal explanation for recurrent unexplained infant deaths.”

Some of the Mamamia commenters have decided they are medical experts in their own right, asserting: “Medical evidence does not support the deaths of 4 babies in surprisingly similar circumstances.” And “Mental illness my arse! She knew what she was doing when she did it. She blamed cot death when she went too far. That’s not mental illness.”

Another refers to a feature written by Lee Glendinning: “When each baby came, love at first sight didn’t come with it. Kathleen would sit at home, alone, despairing. Maybe it was the breast feeding. She tried each time, hoping it would help with the bonding, but it never worked. She knew it was not a physical thing, but a psychological one. Sitting in the lounge chair, her feet tucked under her, she tries to psyche herself into trying again, but the idea of it repulses her.”

It’s an evocative piece of writing. Yet, according to a mutal friend, Megz, Kathy couldn’t breastfeed because she had inverted nipples. That’s why she used infant formula, not because breast-feeding repulsed her.

Some commenters even confuse her with someone else jailed for murdering her child. “I’m not going to waste my money buying the book, so can you please tell me how the missing child is explained? Folbigg testified that she gave the child away but couldn’t remember to whom …”

None of Kathy’s children went missing. That was Kelli Lane.

People are often convicted by the public and media before they even get their day in court. As Hedley Thomas discusses in a feature he wrote for The Australian about Lindy Chamberlain and Gabe Watson (the American whose wife drowned while scuba diving in Queensland and was charged with her murder, with the case later being thrown out by the judge due to lack of evidence) –  http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/opinion/judged-guilty-in-the-minds-of-the-mob/story-e6frgd0x-1226281032516 – sometimes mob mentality and reliance on circumstantial evidence overshadows a lack of concrete fact.

If Kathy’s case does get re-examined and another guilty verdict is reached, I will accept that decision. I will believe that justice has been served. It will not stop me visiting Kathy because if she is found guilty (again) then she must be mentally ill. And whether she is innocent or mentally ill, she needs help not hate.

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27 thoughts on “Help not hate

  1. Good piece Alana. It’s clear you are being guided by your conscience and I fully respect that. Stay strong girl.

  2. Hi Alana – I am megan’s neice and I met Kathy when I was about 8 or 9 a few times (that I remember), and I don’t remember anything but nice things about her, I remember she was very quiet and I think one of the times was after one of her children passed away – I have always kept an open mind and also believe the evidence was weak and that she was convicted on her diaries. Everyone deserves justice and to be heard. I commend you on your attitude, I believe in this day and age people judge too quickly and find it very easy via the internet to condemn, and bully others. I was the victim in a car accident and when I tried to get justice for my unborn child’s life by suggesting a law which would not be manslaughter, but termed causing death of unborn child and would only be applicable to those convicted of another criminal offence (ie dangerous driving – not negligent – assualt etc) and would exclude the mother and legal medical procedures, doctors etc – I recieved alot of comments saying that my emotional knee jerk reaction would cause women to die in backyard abortions. People are not getting all the facts. They are blaming and bullying and I find it hard to understand why there is such hate and anger in their comments. Look at the comments poor Delta has had to put up with and contestants on reality show’s like the block, Chrissie Swan on admitting her child was overweight. Twitter and facebook have brought out the worst in some people and somehow they feel it’s ok to vent and say hurtful things. I don’t understand and it makes me worry – I think this issue needs to be addressed and people need to realise the power of words. We have seen teenagers commiting sucide over cyber bullying, how can we teach our kids this is a bad thing and unacceptable behaviour when people are tweeting similar things to celebrities, and other people in the media or in response to certain topics. I just don’t get it!! Why can’t people be nice, be respectful of other’s opinions, and be able to state their own opinion without the venting, the anger, the blame and the hatred.

    • Thanks Brodie, I appreciate you taking the time to comment when you’ve been through so much yourself. I wish I had an answer to stopping cyber bullying and mob mentality.

  3. One of the benefits of being a human being is that we get to have our own opinions even if those opinions are not based on either truth or fact, but what the media reports and leads us to believe.

    No-one will ever know (except for Kathleen) as to what happened to those 4 children, however everyone should have the right to fair justice and be either declared guilty due to overwhelming concrete evidence or innocent due to the lack of overwhelming concrete evidence.

    Just because you may be caught with the gun in your hand, is that proof enough that you did the shooting?

    As for Kathleen’s diaries (I have not read them, only excerpts), aren’t diaries meant to be a place where you can privately write your inner most thoughts and feelings. But just because you write these down, does it make it true.

    Lastly, we should know by now, that the impossible is possible. Just because something has not happened in the past (or been documented to have happened) does not mean it can’t be possible.

    I don’t know whether Kathleen is innocent or guilty, but she certainly should be allowed a fair trial where all factual evidence is presented.

    It is unacceptable that someone should be convicted on circumstantial evidence or in this case based on entries in a diary. Image how you would feel if this was you.

  4. Good on you Alana. People reacted like this over the last 32 years whenever the possiblity of Lindy Chamberlian’s innocence was raised. I agree that the case should be reviewed because there are doubts about the conviction. People need to be aware that the judicial system does make mistakes – Lindy Chamberlain, Gordon Wood, Jeffrey Gilham to name a few. And particularly good on you for standing by a friend. How horrible it would be to be in gaol (guilty or not guilty) and have no-one to support you.

  5. It’s a shame more of the Mamamia readers won’t see this piece. I love Mamamia, but I’m baffled by the vitriolic responses sometimes. I don’t know how people can work up so much hatred for someone they’ve never met.

  6. It’s hard to be the voice shouting into the wind. Good on you for having the strength of courage speak up.

    I believe in a society of many perspectives and opinions not mob rule.

  7. The older I get, the more grey I see. Black and white was easier in a lot of ways, but I think I am a better person for having discovered grey.

  8. Well said Alana! Ignorant people who do not know the facts are sometimes the first to point the finger. I wonder how they would feel if it was a member of their family or a friend?

    • That’s good Alana … I really feel for so many of the Mamamia writers who must be very frustrated by the nitpicking, the vitriol and the closed-mindedness of some of the commenters.

      • It’s the same everywhere, it’s the people with an axe to grind or an anger that are the ones who usually bother to comment. The rest often just read and move on. A friend reckons if people had to use their real names on the internet they’d all be much more polite!

  9. I agree with other commenters that the comments on the Mamamia post were almost invariably one-sided posts by people unwilling to step out of their own preconceived views of the world. I felt very sorry for you Alana, sharing a personal story about a difficult decision and an experience that almost nobody in Australia has had, and being verbally slammed for it.

    However I’ve been thinking about this case for a couple of days, specifically the infant formula theory. I made this comment on Mamamia but will repeat it here:

    “[I] have a few doubts about the infant formula theory because three of the children were relatively old at their time of death, at a stage where they would both be drinking less infant formula and would also have a larger body mass and need more of the opioid-like substance to produce the respiratory depressive effect. At a later age their nervous systems would also be relatively more developed.

    Welcome dissenting expert comments on this though …”

    And also would welcome your take on that Alana!

    • Good point on the infant formula. I’m no expert, so it’s hard for me to say. But I do know there were genetic sleep apnoea issues with the kids and the father.

  10. I have read the book by Emma Cunliffe and although it was a hard read due to the statistical and analytical content I found it difficult to put down. There is none of the normal suspense and traditional story line to keep you enthralled – only objective analysis of records, data and events, nevertheless I was hooked. I think what kept me intrigued was the search for the evidence that convicted her! I didn’t find it!
    There was ‘coincidence evidence’ presented which was intended to present a picture of a series of coincidences that taken in its entirity would contribute to Folbigg’s guilt. 5 of the 8 items of coincidence evidence presented (briefly) was:

    Each incident occurred at home
    Each incident occurred during a sleep period
    Each incident occurred while the child was in bed
    Each child was found by the accused
    3 incidents were at night and found by accused on her way back from the toilet

    Given Folbigg was the prime care giver, lived in the same house as the children and was their mother. I fail to see the relevance of any of the above points , in fact that would almost certainly be the case of most SIDS incidents I would think (please don’t yell – I’m just a mother, not an expert).
    OK the coincidence evidence was only part of the evidence but honestly having read the book I cannot find any strong evidence to convince me of her guilt beyond any reasonble doubt and that surely is the purpose of a trial. I am not saying the jurors didn’t do their job – this trial was obviously a very long trial with extremely complex evidence presented.
    The expert medical evidence was confusing at the very least and very contradictory with many different points of view given with no overwhelming lean one way or another.
    One thing that struck me though is the statement that you cannot find someone guilty of a crime because it appears to be the most obvious way it happened. It seems to me Folbigg was convicted simply because no other answer was offered so it must have been her. Add to that the general belief of the time that SIDS doesn’t strike a family that many times. Why doesn’t it?
    Experts still cannot agree on many elements of SIDS and autopsy in many cases is inconclusive. And yet the doctor who did one of the autopsies was given a very hard time by the prosecution yet he did not waver from his opinion that the baby died of natural causes.
    I don’t know Folbigg, I don’t know whether she is guilty or not and as someone else said – only Folbigg knows that for sure – but based on this book which seems to be very objective, I don’t believe enough evidence existed or was presented to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I believe her conviction was a dangerous conviction and should be reviewed.
    I believe the following statement was also made by a US president:

    “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, expressed by the English jurist William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in the 1760s.

  11. Psychopath?

    Quoting from Justice Barr’s Folbigg Sentencing Judgment (NSWSC 895 24/10/03):

    “57. Almost all mothers who kill their children do so because they suffer from some kind of psychotic illness. The evidence is unanimous that the offender is not psychotic…”

    Next, Barr quotes Dr Giuffrida, the (prosecution?) expert whom Barr regards as the most significant expert:

    “66. ….She certainly shows none of the usual features of borderline personality disorder nor in particular of psychopathy. In relation to the latter, there is a very significant absence of antisocial conduct or behaviour in adulthood…. In fact in many respects Mrs Folbigg has been remarkably conventional in terms of her lifestyle and interests and if anything had very ordinary and conservative aspirations …. there is therefore very significantly a remarkable absence in terms of the historical features or [sic] the core criteria for psychopathy.”

    Folbigg’s prosecutor has won every single jury trial that I can find on the internet in the last 20 years (except one hung jury). Perhaps the odds of her being found innocent, based on that statistic, might be compared to the odds of having 4 children die of natural causes such as SIDS. Her prosecutor is very successful at his business.

    One psychopathic trait is the ability to mimic emotions – ref the highly relevant SBS show Are You Good Or Evil? which can be watched online at SBS On Demand for the next 12 days – it aired on Sydney TV on Tuesday night. Thus Casey Anthony, the psychopathic mum who killed her baby in Florida recently was able to mimic the right emotions to convince a jury to find her innocent (ref eyesforlies website et al).

    Alas for Kathy Folbigg she lacked such skills, according to her Judge. .

    For fanatics, specific eyesforlies links include:
    http://blog.eyesforlies.com/2012/01/casey-anthony-comes-out-on-youtube.html
    http://blog.eyesforlies.com/2011/06/casey-anthonys-emotions.html etc etc
    http://www.humintell.com/2011/06/casey-anthonys-top-ten-lies/
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/58784740@N02/5756447747/ (fascinating to compare with when police ask Keli Lane in online video whether she killed her baby, link available if anyone wants)

  12. Mamamia is a good forum, but seriously, some of those commenters do my head in. They take away from the site, sometimes.

  13. Mamamia readers are just normal. The public’s hate is easily created:-

    For Folbigg, by Benns’ book, biased reporting and “blame the mother” thinking.

    For Gabe Watson, by Australian Story, the media, the book Honeymoon Dive and possible invention of things to sully his character, such as a Breasts comment. For the real story, read http://www.michaelmcfadyenscuba.info/viewpage.php?page_id=791,
    especially Air Consumption on page 6, the top 2 lines of page 7 and all of page 1.

    For Gordon Wood, by biased reporting, books by Wainwright and Cross, a telemovie and invention of various news stories about him that can be shown not to have happened (e.g a Tits comment). The media did a fine job of re-inventing his character.

    For Jeffrey Gilham, by a telemovie. The media didn’t attack him as much as the others.

    For Keli Lane – a media bonanza – “blame the mother” but Judge Whealy’s sentencing comments on her suggest that there may be more to her case than many think.

    Here’s seven quotes from Judge Whealy’s 2011 Sentencing of Keli Lane at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nsw/NSWSC/2011/289.html. The last one is relevant to Folbigg too:

    : “(11) … The defence case was that, by arrangement, Keli gave the child to its natural father. Consistently with the jury’s verdict, I must reject this explanation. I accept, as I am bound to do by the jury’s verdict, that the offender deliberately and intentionally caused the death of Tegan. There is no evidence, however, of the manner of death. There is no evidence from which the precise time of death or the manner of disposal of the child’s body can be established. The offender has maintained her version of events for many years and it is clear that,. despite the jury’s verdict, she continues to maintain her innocence. Nevertheless, as I have said, the jury’s verdict requires me to state that I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offender deliberately and intentionally caused the death of her daughter, even though I am unable to say anything as to the precise circumstances of that fatal event.
    (21) Unusually, the Crown called evidence from a psychiatrist … [who] …. had never met not interviewed her…..
    (66) … Keli’s love for her daughter, and the ability that she has shown in nurturing her daughter into a lovely and caring child ….
    (67) … the testimonials particularly demonstrate that Keli has a unique rapport and successful relationship with young children generally ….. extends also to the close relationship she has with the children of her many friends ….
    (81) …far from harming her third child, … she arranged from the outset to place him into adoptive care, and ultimately secured placement with, it seems, caring adoptive parents …
    (86) … it must be observed that , in some respects, the search was not so much as to find Tegan as it was to prove that she could not be found…
    (96) … the research document “Sentenced Homicides in NSW (1994 – 2001)…. twenty two of the seventy-three child killers examined in that survey were sentenced for murder, however only ten of them were parents, or partners of parents of the victims. Indeed, in the catalogue of these murders, there was only one mother who was sentenced for the murder of her child…”

  14. Oh wow! This is my take on her diary entries. Those diaries are misinterpreted. The poor woman believed that because she couldn’t breastfeed any of them, that is what caused their deaths, NOT because she smothered them. If she was a murderer and didn’t care about the babies, why why she care if she couldn’t breastfeed? That just doesn’t add up! Why would a mother who hated her kids and had no empathy and compassion be concerned and carry so much guilt about not being able to breastfeed them? She didn’t do anything to kill them, she just thinks she did!

  15. I thought of something else. Given the circumstances of Kathleen’s mother’s murder, is it possible that there were other children older than Kathleen who may have died from SIDS and that is why Kathleen’s father did what he did, believing that his wife was responsible? If that has happened, then perhaps there is a reason for it other than Kathleen Folbigg murdered her children. One of Kathleen’s children was known to have epilepsy, it’s not unreasonable to think perhaps this could have been the cause of the other babies deaths too. If one had a neurological issue, the others certainly could have too which means the electrical impulses in the brain may not have been quite right, even though it wasn’t detected at autopsy. What mother wouldn’t feel that their inadequacies rather than their deliberate actions had caused their chilid’s death? Every mother worries and wonders if they’re doing the best for their baby.

  16. WOMEN SERIAL KILLERS OF THE 20TH CENTURY VOLUME 3 (WOMEN WHO KILL)

    SYLVIA PERRINI

    ASIN: B008R3M4E2

    This is a new book out today published on Amazon. The last chapter is dedicated to Kathleen Folbigg and details in layman’s language, why her conviction was wrong, and the injustice of her appeals. It also says that if Kathleen had been tried in the UK she would be a free woman today.
    This book is easily affordable for anyone. If you want Kathleen freed, get your friends to buy it.
    She also has a poll where you can vote if you believe Kathleen should have a re-trial.

  17. It’s nice to know Kathleen has people visiting her and still taking the time to care about her. I don’t know her or anyone personally involved with the case, but I have always felt for her. I have read parts of her diary and followed her trial, and whilst I don’t believe she is innocent, I don’t believe she deserves to be in prison until 2028. I think she killed her children in a minute of intense frustration and anguish, i don’t think she meant to do it. I think each time it happened she just lost it and couldn’t control herself. I think her diary entries show that she was already under an intense amount of personal anguish, pressure and stress. She was preoccupied with events from her past, she was confused about who she was, that along with her childhood abuse and identity issues were weighing on her terribly. These issues coupled with the daily stresses of a marriage and being a mother were too much for her. She deserves treatment and help, not abuse, punishment or condemnation. I think it’s disgusting that people want to hurt or maime her for her crimes. By having compassion for her, doesn’t excuse her crimes, it doesn’t make her children’s lives count any less, it doesn’t mean that every person who kills their child(ren) deserves a free pass. You only have to read her diary entries to read that she loved her kids, her husband, she isn’t some pathological psychopath getting a kick out of hurting her kids or husband. She was, and I still presume is, a lost and confused soul that needs help. Justice is about harmony, not revenge. I mean no disrespect to our legal system, but I do think in this case, manslaughter would have been more appropriate with a 5- 10 year term with provisions for psychiatric treatment. Kathleen, you deserve another shot at life and I hope you get it:)

  18. I’ve worked in a prison. I’ve spent too many years with nasty murderers, rapists and pedophiles. Jail is no place for the innocent and the community is no place for the guilty. It is so important that our justice system affords justice.

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