The Folbigg inquiry in Sydney has challenged scientists on the accuracy and objectivity of their submissions.
Professors Carola Vinuesa and Todor Arsov contributed to an article that triggered the inquiry, and were asked to recall their interactions with Kathleen Folbigg, who was sentenced to 30 years for the deaths of her four children.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Sophie Callan SC sought information on how the two experts described an incident where an adolescent Kathleen Folbigg (then Donovan) fainted at a school swimming event: specifically whether Folbigg fainted during or after swimming, and the extent to which she was aided by others.
In records played to the inquiry of an early conversation with Vinuesa, Folbigg said she fainted after she left the pool. The reports submitted by Vinuesa and Arsov indicated that Folbigg was “dragged” or otherwise assisted from the pool.
That incident has been suggested as a possible case of Catecholaminergic Polymorphic Ventricular Tachycardia (or CPVT), an irregular heartbeat that can lead to cardiac arrest. Experts giving evidence at these inquiries suggest confirming CPVT in Folbigg would strengthen the case to consider her G114R calmodulin variant as pathogenic.
It is unclear if the inaccurate descriptions of this event in the reports will impact a CPVT consideration.
“It’s about the science”
Callan further quizzed Vinuesa about her work on the Folbigg inquiries, and three items of correspondence with Folbigg regarding testing of her DNA.
Within her line of questioning Callan asked whether Vinuesa had become “obsessed” with the case.
“I was obsessed by the science, and about the science being accurately recorded and finished properly,” Vinuesa said.
Vinuesa said she was “surprised” by the result of the original 2019 inquiry, given she considered the data prepared by her team of researchers based out of Australian National University as “sufficiently strong” to cast reasonable doubt as to the cause of the children’s deaths.
The 2019 inquiry found no new reasonable doubt on the Folbigg convictions.
“Yes, I had a surprised, disappointed reaction to that,” Vinuesa said.
Pressed on why she later attended prison to speak with Folbigg, and to other contact over the phone, Vinuesa described her approach as a standard procedure in her profession, where doctors verbally communicate investigation findings with patients.
“I do take personal interest in the cases that I work, but it’s not about the individuals, it’s about the science.”Carola Vinuesa
“That’s what you normally do to patients when you finish an investigation,” she said.
Callan emphasised expert witnesses are duty-bound “to assist the court impartially on matters relevant to their area of expertise,” and interrogated Vinuesa’s personal views expressed in media, including a 2021 Wired article, where she was quoted saying: “As a mother, I cannot think of any more worthy cause to invest time and effort in. I find it hard to believe there is someone sitting in jail for this.”.
Variants “not benign” say opening experts
Vinuesa was asked directly if her public comments were a form of advocacy (which is prohibited for expert witnesses). She responded that she separated her personal views from her professional objectivity.
“When I was first approached, I had never heard of Mrs Folbigg,” Vinuesa said.
“To this date I haven’t been paid a cent for what we’ve done. It’s taken us numerous reports, numerous hours of my work, both during working hours and out of hours.
“I do this because I believe in the science that we do. And I like to draw some conclusions based on the science.
“I do take personal interest in the cases that I work, but it’s not about the individuals, it’s about the science.”
Callan then changed tack to review the broader contentions made by Vinuesa, Arsov and their colleague Matthew Cook, who will be called on Wednesday.
It’s likely Dr Gregory Woods KC, counsel for Ms Folbigg, and Dean Jordan SC for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) will press Vinuesa on her evidence on Wednesday morning.
More to come from study team
Earlier on Tuesday, Arsov, a geneticist, said that in his view, the G114R variant satisfied the criteria of being pathogenic.
He explained the genetic concepts of “penetrance” and “variable expressivity”, showing examples of other inherited, disease-causing genetic variants.
Some did not lead to disease in all individuals who possessed the variation, even in members of the same family. Disease traits exhibited by some people carrying the same gene mutation can also vary.
Can the law keep up with science?
Arsov confirmed in the context of the Folbigg children, the boys Caleb and Patrick Folbigg died without having G114R, or any other genetic variant likely to have caused their death.
In response to questioning by Jordan, he indicated the inquiry’s cardiological experts are best placed to comment on matters of the cardiac issues potentially exhibited in the Folbigg children.
Pressed by Callan, Arsov indicated his view that the Folbigg daughters died because of the G114R mutation was based on probabilities, though he couldn’t definitely say it was the cause of their death.
The inquiry continues on Wednesday with Vinuesa to again given evidence, followed by former ANU colleague and study collaborator Matthew Cook and calmodulinopathy expert Peter Schwartz.
More on the Folbigg inquiries
- Calmodulin variants “not benign” say Danish experts
- Can the law keep up with science?
- Timeline compared: Folbigg convictions and genetic advances
- Video explainer: What is Calmodulin
Originally published by Cosmos as Scientific experts challenged on accuracy and advocacy
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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