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The case of Kathleen Folbigg: medical expert testimony, a system failure

By Michael Nott - posted Friday, 27 June 2014

Did Kathleen Folbigg, who was convicted of the murder of her four children in 2003, actually kill her children?

It is a question that has exercised the minds of many legal academics and lawyers.

What we do know is that Folbigg was convicted in the NSW Supreme Court without any substantial evidence.  The case was based on the circumstances that Folbigg was the mother of four children and all the children died.   The medical evidence relating to the cause of the deaths of her four children at her trial was not conclusive and, at best, circumstantial.   The deaths of Folbigg’s four children were originally labelled as ‘sudden infant death syndrome’.


The case was based by implication on the now discredited theory of British paediatrician, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, who promoted himself as a child abuse expert.  He gave evidence in child abuse or infant death cases in the United Kingdom and Australia and edited The ABC of Child Abuse. In 2005, when questioned during professional misconduct hearings, Meadow stated that he did not hold himself out as an expert on child abuse and rejected suggestions he was a guru on the subject.

Meadow’s hypothesis is that in multiple unexplained cot deaths in the same family: one (infant) death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder.  Meadow’s rule relied upon an untested hypothesis by two American pathologists, Dominick and Vincent Di Maio, who referred to it as ‘the rule of three.’  In Buchanan v State of Nevada 69 P.3d 694 (2003) (‘Buchanan’) Dr Di Maio testified that he did not accept that sudden infant deaths recur in a single family.  In Buchanan, Dr Vincent Di Maio explained:

when you get a first case that appears to be sudden infant death syndrome (‘SIDS’) … treat it as SIDS … [i]n the second case, we know that in all probability it's not a SIDS.  It's a homicide … you always give them the benefit of the doubt … than to falsely accuse them … [i]t's when you get to the third one, then you've gone beyond reasonable doubts and you have to call it a homicide.

What we do know now is that Meadow’s child abuse hypotheses have been discredited and rejected in a number of court cases. His testimony, based on his hypotheses, in multiple civil and criminal proceedings, has been demonstrated to lack any evidentiary basis.

Meadow’s ‘rule of three’ hypothesis was criticised and discredited by the UK Court of Appeal in cases such as R  v Cannings [2004] EWCA Crim 1 (‘Cannings’), R v Anthony [2005] EWCA Crim 952 [81] (Anthony), R v Kai-Whitewind [2005] EWCA Crim 1092 (‘Kai-Whitewind’) and Clark [2003] EWCA Crim 1020.  The hypothesiswas rejected when it was used by implication in the Australian cases of R v KJF (Unreported, New South Wales Supreme Court,October 2007and Matthey [2007] VSC 398,and the USA case of Shabree Ward 138 S.W. 3d 245 (Tenn, 2003).

In the UK case of Cannings, their Honours stated ‘if that is the fashion, it must now cease.’  The ‘rule of three’ hypothesis is without scientific backing.


A leading Australian case concerning the admissibility of expert evidence, Makita (Australia) Pty Ltd v Sprowles [2001] NSWCA 305 (‘Makita’),states that an expert’s opinion requires demonstration or examination of the scientific evidence or other intellectual basis for its conclusions. If the opinion fails such examination, then it fails to be expert evidence and should be ruled inadmissible.  Further, speculative medical expert evidence was ruled inadmissible by the NSW Supreme Court in R v Phillips [1999] NSWSC 1175 [58] (‘Phillips’)and in Straker v The Queen (1977) 51 ALJR 690 (‘Straker’)where Jacobs J said ‘[t]he jury may be invited to draw inferences from the evidence but not to join an expert witness in speculation on possibilities adverse to the accused.’

Meadow’s hypothesis fails those tests.  It is unreliable and speculative.  Further, Meadow was not qualified to give such an opinion. It is concerning because legal academics argue that there is a tendency to allow trained professionals to testify in areas beyond their actual expertise or beyond the collective ability of any recognisable field or identifiable sub-discipline.

So, the fact is we have an unreliable and speculative theory dominating the Folbigg case and being used by implication.  It should not have been allowed.  But, the question remains: what may have caused the deaths of the children, or at least one or two of the children?

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About the Author

Michael Nott is an advocate for mothers falsely accused of munchausen syndrome (factitious illness) by proxy and the cot death theory. He has a Bachelor of Laws degree (LLB)(Macquarie University), Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (Australian National University) and Graduate Diploma of Applied Social Sciences: Adult Education (University of Western Sydney). He can be contacted by email at: michaelnott AT

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