When the Bough Breaks, by Matthew Benns

when-the-bough-breaksI found this book in a charity shop, costing only 50 cents. I’m not sure that I would have bothered with it if it hadn’t been so cheap. At that stage I wasn’t really interested in “true crime”.

After buying it I moved onto other books and left this one untouched on my book shelves. And then about a week ago I saw a short documentary related to the case being advertised on TV.

I recorded the doco for future viewing and put this book at the top of my reading list.

Kathleen Folbigg and her husband Craig seemed to be the unluckiest of parents. Over the years, their four infant children each succumbed to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). But was it bad luck, a dark quirk of fate – or something more sinister?

Eventually Folbigg was investigated and convicted for the murder of her children.

When the Bough Breaks is a fascinating account of the events, making Kathleen Folbigg’s guilt seem certain. But I can’t help holding onto a degree of scepticism. It’s easy to be swayed one way or the other by a single version of events and the angle from which that version is presented.

I recall too well the many accounts of an earlier case, where Lindy Chamberlain was imprisoned for the murder of her daughter Azaria after a prolonged trial by media, with most newspapers publishing all manner of wild accusations against Chamberlain and her husband. It took a few years before the powers that be acknowledged their mistake and Chamberlain was freed.

The case against Folbigg, while compelling, was entirely circumstantial, based on things like this:

  1. Her four infant children all died under very similar “unexplained” circumstances.
  2. Folbigg was the last person to see those children alive, and was the one to discover their lifeless bodies very soon after death (some were still warm).
  3. Her diaries had entries expressing strong “hints” of her guilt.
  4. Paediatric “experts” were adamant that the odds of losing four infants in the same way to natural causes would be about a trillion to one.  *

As a contrast to Folbigg’s case and the evidence against her, in particular the “expert” opinion, a similar case in Britain, around the same time, had a completely different result. The case of Trupti Patel receives a brief mention in the last chapter of When the Bough Breaks. She was acquitted after being tried for the murder of three infant children.

Basic details can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trupti_Patel

Considering the expert claims about the astronomical odds against Folbigg losing four infants to natural causes, the following excerpt of the article about Patel’s case is very interesting. In particular note the statements I’ve emphasised with bold type.

The case, which was heard at Reading crown court, was one of a number of famous court cases in Britain in which mothers who reported more than one cot death were accused of murder. It was one of a number of cases in which evidence was given by Roy Meadow, a controversial pediatrician whose testimony helped to convict Sally Clark, Angela Cannings, and Donna Anthony of murdering their babies. Meadow’s claim that the likelihood of two babies dying from natural causes in the same family was one in 73 million prompted the Royal Statistical Society to write a letter of complaint to the Lord Chancellor, stating that the figure had “no statistical basis”; other experts said that when genetic and environmental factors were taken into account, the figure was closer to one in 200

Taking into account what I’ve read in Matthew Benns’ book as well as the information contained in the following video, one thing that I’m very sure about is that our justice system is susceptible to serious error. The result of a trial seems too reliant on which side presents the most appealing case – whether the Prosecution or the Defence put on the better, more convincing show to sway a jury’s perception of the case at hand.

Faced with expert opinion expressing the astronomical odds against the chance of four similar “unexplained”  natural infant deaths in one family , how could a jury ignore the likelihood of homicide?

But as the Royal Statistical Society said regarding the similar Patel case, the stated figure of 73 million to one had “no statistical basis” (see quote above), and yet the figures suggested regarding the Folbigg case were even more extreme (trillion to one). *

Which expert opinion should a jury believe, and do they really get exposed to plausible alternatives? I recall from the Chamberlain case, that an “expert” had identified a blood spray in the Chamberlain’s car, proving that their daughter had been murdered in the car. What conclusion could a jury make when faced with evidence like that? And yet, later the spray pattern was “…found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car” and NOT blood.  **

In the Folbigg case, police spent years trying to build up a case against her, including overseas trips to consult with amenable experts. But how long in comparison did the defence have to build their case? The video below shows that alternative expert opinion is available, but to what extent were those views presented (if at all) in Folbigg’s trial?

With the case of the diary entries, while Folbigg’s statement seemed to be self-incriminating,  they don’t necessarily express a categorical “confession” of criminal guilt – they could equally express feelings of self-condemnation about her perceived failings as a mother who had already experienced the death of multiple infants. But presented selectively, could the possibility of  ambiguity be hidden?

A major contributor of evidence for the prosecution was Craig Folbigg, Kathy’s husband and father of the dead infants.

Difficulties in their marriage (particularly as parents) can be seen in Kathy’s diary.

I can’t even trust or depend on him to look after [Laura] properly. He refuses to bother to learn anything about her. He doesn’t pat attention when feeding her, hasn’t changed a nappy, doesn’t do washing or ironing, only washes up once in a while. His life continues as normal. Work, come home and I look after him. He doesn’t even cook tea every now and then unless I ask him to. And then it is begrudgingly.

Craig’s testimony against his wife was given at a time when she had walked away from the marriage. He withdrew his accusations and suspicions when she returned to him, then when the relationship failed again he returned to his original story, once again incriminating his wife.

From what I’ve read and seen it’s easy to believe that Folbigg was responsible for the deaths of her children, but I find there are also things that make me question or even doubt that conclusion.

Overall, who can really know whether or not Folbigg is guilty and rightfully convicted?

Only she and God know for certain.

 

____________________________

REFERENCES

*   [Detective] Ryan spent two years collecting evidence and assembling a case that he believed would result in Kathleen Folbigg’s murder conviction. On April 19, 2001, police arrested her at her home, took her into custody, and charged her with four counts of murder. At her hearing, prosecutors claimed that she had deliberately smothered her children to death, and they produced the diary as the most incriminating evidence. They also presented a statement from forensic pathologist Janice Ophoven who said that the chances of all four children dying of SIDS “were a trillion to one.”

https://www.encyclopedia.com/children/medical-magazines/sids-diagnosis

 

**

“Professor Cameron and Dr Jones concluded that the blood spray pattern found under the dashboard of the Chamberlain’s car could have been produced by a cut in a small artery.

“Subsequently, Joy Kuhl’s forensic report claimed to have found evidence of foetal haemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains’ 1977 Torana hatchback (foetal haemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger).

“She claimed to have identified foetal blood in 22 areas of the car, including the camera bag, floor, towel, console and scissors.”

There was so much conflicting evidence from witnesses and experts who both disputed and supported the Crown’s scenario and who questioned Joy Kuhl’s testing.

“The questionable nature of the forensic science evidence in the Chamberlain trial, and the weight given to it, raised concerns about such procedures and about expert testimony in criminal cases,” Ms Brown told the AFP recruits.

“The foetal haemoglobin in the Chamberlains’ car was later found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car.”

https://www.afp.gov.au/news-media/platypus/afp-forensics-recruits-get-rare-access-chamberlain-collection

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4 thoughts on “When the Bough Breaks, by Matthew Benns

  1. This is such a sad and disturbing topic, wouldn’t want to think about it. But I can see what you mean about evidence and experts and different takes on the same events. I don’t remember if I ever mentioned that I went for jury duty and found out it was going to be a family trial involving at least a young lady and a young man — brother and sister. I didn’t want to think about it but knew I would be able to think fairly. I think the defense didn’t want me there. You know, they ask questions beforehand to decide who they aren’t accepting for the jury. I answered the question of whether or not there are always witnesses to a crime with “no.”

    1. Hi Marleen,
      Gloria served on a jury once. It was a drug smuggling charge. The jury gave a not guilty verdict – not because he hadn’t tried to bring drugs into the country, but they accepted the defence argument that the defendant was just a stupidly naïve man who didn’t have a clue what he had been hired to do.
      He was a German national and was deported after the trial.
      For some reason I can recall the exact week of that trial September 2001, including the 11th of the month.

      I was called up for Jury duty twice and after attending selection was excused. The first time coincided with my annual leave when I had travel planned. The second time was when we were in the process of moving from Sydney to our current home town.

      I would have liked to participate, but didn’t get the opportunity.

      Both times I had to travel into the city and spend half a day waiting to give my excuse. On one of those occasions all of the buses home were cancelled. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were visiting at the time and a lot of roads were closed for security reasons. I had to wait around for a couple of hours until bus services resumed. While there the official Royal car drove past and I got a glimpse of the Royal couple.

      1. I was actually glad, after the fact, that I was let go. While it is true that there are not always witnesses, how would a jury come to a decision? And if the matter is serious, either decision could weigh on one’s conscience. I would, though, like to participate at some time in my life.

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