Press conference transcript: Science central in overturning Australia’s greatest miscarriage of justice

June 05, 2023

The following is a transcript of a press conference given by the President, Professor Chennupati Jagadish AC PresAA FREng FTSE and Chief Executive, Anna-Maria Arabia of the Australian Academy of Science, in response to the pardon of Kathleen Folbigg announced earlier today.

Professor Chennupati Jagadish: So, the Australian Academy of Science has been the independent scientific advisor to Kathleen Folbigg’s case since 2019. Today we warmly welcome the announcement of the Attorney-General’s unconditional pardon by the governor of New South Wales of Kathleen Folbigg. And we are relieved that science has been heard, and we particularly would like to take this opportunity to thank our Academy Fellow Professor Carola Vinuesa FRS FAA, who has really brought to the attention of the Academy this particular case and her science and has shown much integrity, ensuring that science has been heard by the justice system. And it's a great day for science today because of the fact that the justice system has taken into consideration the scientific evidence in determining the pardon of Kathleen Folbigg.

Anna-Maria Arabia: I too am absolutely relieved that Kathleen Folbigg has been pardoned. It's been an absolute privilege for the Australian Academy of Science to have acted as an independent scientific advisor to this inquiry. We know that science is moving at a rapid pace, and we need to find mechanisms for a more science-sensitive legal system to be created. The DPP at the second inquiry into the case of Kathleen Folbigg noted how critical it was to have scientific evidence come from reliable and independent sources, such as the experts the Australian Academy of Science was able to convene. The Attorney-General Michael Daley this morning said that we must find mechanisms to ensure that cases can be reviewed, particularly when there is new evidence that comes to light. I could not agree more. The question must now be asked, how do we create a more science-sensitive legal system bringing to bear new complex and emerging science routinely every day, not just in exceptional cases. The Australian Academy of Science very much looks forward to working with Attorney-General Daley to look at ways that this can be developed and implemented. In fact, this case has enormous implications for the justice system of every Australian State and Territory.

Journalist: So were you calling for an overhaul or a review of Australia's legal system and how it can properly incorporate scientific evidence for trials?

Anna-Maria Arabia: We are calling for law reforms such that the legal system can be more science-sensitive. We need new and emerging science to be able to inform decision making. Science needs to inform decisions wherever they are made, including in the justice system. So, we do need ways – particularly when all of the appeals mechanisms have been exhausted, as was the case with Kathleen Folbigg – for that science to be heard. But also in other cases where we do need independent experts to come forward and quite independently put their scientific evidence to inform decision-making. Science is complex. We don't need scientists put into a boxing ring up against each other. We need a way in which science can be heard fairly, transparently, and independently by the justice system.

Journalist: Do you have any ideas on how that would work or any suggestions to, to kind of kick-start conversation about how you go about doing that?

Anna-Maria Arabia: In terms of creating a system where new science can be heard after all of the appeals mechanisms have been exhausted, other countries have adopted a criminal case review commission. It's been a very successful model in like-minded countries like the UK, Canada, New Zealand. There is an opportunity for Australia to implement such a system or something similar.

Journalist: And how concerned are you that there are similar cases of people being wrongfully accused of killing their children when at the time the science wasn't understood or we weren't aware of genetic factors at play?

Anna-Maria Arabia: There are myriad cases where there have been pleas for pardons and other such things based on new evidence coming to light. There are too many for anyone to look at in an ad-hoc way. This is why something like a criminal case review commission could look at those cases independently and determine whether a new process is required, whether that's an inquiry, or another court process of some variety. So, we do need a system where those cases can be looked at on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they need to be opened again.

Journalist: And are there any specific cases that you are aware of that you believe need to be reviewed?

Anna-Maria Arabia: There are no cases that I'm aware of at this time that would be analogous to this one. I haven't looked at all of the cases though.

Journalist: Something you touched on, this might be a bit out-of-left field. Is there a broader tension here between how scientists decide what they think is true and how the justice system decides what it thinks is true? Do you think this case strikes up?

Anna-Maria Arabia: Scientists go about advancing knowledge and they do so using a time-honoured process called the peer review system. Through that, knowledge emerges and is published and made available to everyone. There is great integrity in that process that allows evidence to be shared with everyone. The justice system can take that evidence and hear from expert witnesses as they are called to the justice system. We do not always have a system where the most qualified or the most expert person is made available to that system. That's a real opportunity for law reform. The independent selection of scientific experts so they can bring to bear their knowledge in an unfettered way would be an enormous advancement for our nation.

Journalist: So you would be calling for a better system to be put in place to make sure that the right people are being put forward for the legal systems. That kind of thing?

Anna-Maria Arabia: The second inquiry into Kathleen Folbigg showed how important it was to get the most qualified and expert scientists before the Commissioner and Counsel Assisting and all the parties of the inquiry. That was important so that the inquiry could hear most comprehensively from world experts. We had experts from Australia, but also from around the world to bring the most up-to-date knowledge for that inquiry to consider. This was a remarkable moment in our history where science was comprehensively put by the most qualified experts in the world. It has been critical to having science heard in this case.

The above transcript has been lightly edited for reasons of coherence and accuracy, but all efforts have been made to retain the integrity of the original interview.

More information

Watch the video about the role of science in the case of Ms Folbigg.

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