Kathleen Volpig: How science exonerated a woman accused of killing her four children

Kathleen Volpig: How science exonerated a woman accused of killing her four children

For a long time Kathleen Volpiga 55-year-old Australian who has been in prison since 2003 AH She was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the murder of her four young childrenHe was hailed as “Australia’s worst serial killer”. However, on June 5, 2023, everything changed: after a new investigation that began in 2019, it benefited in depth Genetic testing and consulting Leading global experts sudden infant death, Folbigg has been cleared. Investigations, as you mentioned BBC.comIn fact, he concluded that therereasonable doubt as to Mrs. Volpig’s guilt in each of the crimes for which she was originally triedIndeed, analyzes of the DNA of the accused and her children revealed the presence of Mutation in the calodulin gene – a protein that, among other things, helps regulate heart contractions – which is It is alleged that he caused the deaths of both of Volpig’s daughters and other mutations associated with B neurosis She may have been responsible for the death of one of the other two children.

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Twenty years after the conviction, the judicial authorities concluded that Volpig may not have obtained the sentence She has nothing to do with the death of her childrenBut that was it A victim of very unfortunate genetic coincidences. This case, which is currently being described as one of the biggest blunders in the Australian judicial system, shines a spotlight on this massive case. The impact of scientific progress on legal processes And It sets an important precedentpotentially able to Revolutionizing the way science and justice work together.

Four sudden deaths

Between 1989 and 1999 Caleb, Patrick, Sarah and Laura, i Four children By Australian couple Kathleen and Craig Volpig, They died in their sleepTheir ages ranged from nineteen days to eighteen months. It also reports Wired.coman autopsy revealed that the children had died for her Natural causes. In particular, Laura and Sarah could have been victims Sudden infant death syndrome (the death a sudden, unexpected, and unexplained occurrence of a seemingly healthy baby from one month to a year old, also known as cot death); Patrick died of asphyxiation caused by a seizure, while the coroner ruled Caleb’s death related to acute myocarditis.

Four deaths within the same family within ten years and circumstantial evidence, including some A diary in which a woman notes feelings of guilt which haunts her, led to Fulbig being sued by her husband in 2003 before a Supreme Court jury for murdering her children by strangling them in their sleep. No history of abuse came to light during the investigation. There are no physical signs of chokingNo apparent motive, no eyewitnesses, no admission of guilt; In addition to, Psychiatrists who visited Volpig, who always maintained his innocence, They did not diagnose any mental illnesses It could explain infanticide.

However, unlike the diaries, the prosecutor’s argument was inspired by The work of British pediatrician Roy Meadowwhich in the 70s was the first to specify Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychopathology in which a parent causes harm to their children in order to get attention from them. According to a famous pediatrician’s writing, in fact “One sudden infant death is a tragedy, two are suspects, and three are murder until proven guiltyThree doctors interviewed during Volpig’s trial testified that they had never seen or read about three cases of sudden infant death in one family. For these reasons, the jury concluded at the end of the trial that there The mother is guilty of killing four childrenAnd she was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

What is Calmodulin 2?

At this point, there’s a time jump of about 15 years. It’s 2018 and Carola Garcia de Viñuesaat the time an immunologist at the Australian National University, where she deals with Studying the human genome to investigate the causes of rare diseasesHe is contacted by Folbigg’s legal team. Indeed, because many forensic pathologists expressed skepticism about the medical evidence presented during the 2003 trial, Volpig’s lawyers persuaded the local district attorney’s office to re-evaluate the issue. The goal was to use DNA sequencing techniques and find out about genetic diseases that did not exist at the time of the first experiment Shedding light on the cause of the four mysterious deaths. Indeed, in the genome of Fulpig and his two daughters, he identified Venuesa Mutations in the gene called calmodulin 2which according to one Stady Since 2013 from the group coordinated by Peter Schwartz, Cardiologist, Director of the Center for the Study and Treatment of Arrhythmias of Genetic Origin at the Italian Institute of Oxygenation Irccs in Milan, due to Sudden death in early childhood.

there calodolineIn fact, it is a protein It regulates a number of enzymes and ion channels within cells, including those necessary to mediate heart contraction. In particular, when certain mutations occur in the gene that codes for this protein, the protein loses its function, Increased risk of having an irregular heartbeat (i.e. when the heart beats irregularly) Even humans. In particular, mutations in the genome of Fulpig and his daughters cause potentially fatal heart rhythm disorders similar to those associated with the so-called long QT syndrome (a genetic disease leading to sudden death under the age of 20), of which Schwartz is the leading expert worldwide. .

The second investigation

However, more evidence was needed to reopen the case: thanks to a petition filed jointly by Venuesa with the Australian Academy of Sciences, the Creation of a new investigation into the Folbigg caseWith the Academy as scientific advisor. The latter, therefore, appointed a group of scientific experts, 30 researchers are among the leading experts in this fieldwho collected and presented evidence during the investigation: Peter Schwartz was also among them.

on a matter telegraph Schwartz responded about how long it took him to realize there might be a natural explanation for the infants’ deaths:It was instant. We know that if a child dies suddenly, and they don’t have a knife in their back and they have this genetic mutation, that’s the cause of death.“.

The researchers then extracted more scientific evidence, which was then compiled into one Stady 2021 published in the journal Europass. In particular, the scientists’ work showed that Volpig and his two daughters were carriers of one A new mutation in the calmodulin 2 gene Able to cause an irregular heartbeat e associated with sudden death in childhood. Moreover, studies have shown that Caleb and Patrick, the two sons, have Two very rare variants of another gene that was Associated with neurological problems and fatal epileptic seizures. On the basis of these findings, Vanessa, Schwartz, and other experts testified at the new hearing, leading to the verdict on June 5th. Now, the former judge in charge of the investigation is expected to issue a final report that will then lead to Folbigg’s official release.

It’s a day to celebrate that science has heard and made a difference. And not only in this case, I thinkA. said Science.org Viñuesa, who hopes this case will become a The model in which legal systems can relate to science.

An important precedent

In fact, as pointed out by A nature. com arabian anna maria, chief executive officer Australian Academy of Sciences, the story shows how Science and justice systems can work together, to create The legal system is more sensitive to science itself, Starting with learning about the skills of the experts consulted during operations. “What the Australian judicial system did has a few precedents: first of all because the authorities had the guts to reopen the process after twenty years and go and really look at how things were, and above all because International experts with specific expertise on the calodulin gene were involved and long QT syndrome And it was not just the opinions expressed by local doctors who had no experience in the matter, as is usually the caseL adds Wired Italyto Schwartz.

“This is the critical point in the matter: Often, even in Italy, there is a tendency to consult general experts, “continues Schwartz. “For example, in a case like this one could consult a cardiologist, but in cardiology there are very different and very selective experiences, and therefore the presence of general opinion In a particularly controversial situation, they are of little value. Instead, what made the difference was that Australian jurisdictions already had a series of general local experts, but then turned to people, in different parts of the world, who had the most expertise in the field. This is certainly an important point that creates a decisive precedent: especially if the case is sensitive, such as a forty-year prison sentence, It is right to consult the world’s leading experts on the specific disease in question“.

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