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Reviewed by:
  • Murder, Medicine and Motherhood
  • Elizabeth Sheehy (bio) and Christine Boyle (bio)
Murder, Medicine and Motherhood By Emma Cunliffe (Portland, OR: Hart, 2011).
Elizabeth Sheehy (Liz):

Murder, Medicine and Motherhood, by Emma Cunliffe, should be read by lawyers, judges, and medical experts if we are to prevent the kinds of tragic prosecutions that changed the lives of Susan Nelles,1 Lindy Chamberlain,2 and the many women convicted of homicide based on the testimony of Dr. Charles Smith in Ontario.3

Christine Boyle (Christine):

Before I say how much I admire this book, I should acknowledge that I was on Emma's doctoral committee here at the University of British Columbia. It is a book with a dramatic subject, the possible wrongful, or unjust, conviction of Kathleen Folbigg for the serial murder of her children.4 The trial was held in 2003 in New South Wales, Australia. Emma's book is a tour de force, with analysis of the trial transcripts, the medical literature on sudden infant death syndrome, and the media coverage of the trial.


Let us give readers a sense of the whole of the book before we pick up on some of the themes. Chapter 1 introduces Emma's subject and her thesis that the case against Folbigg for killing her four infants was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Emma puts the case in the context of other contemporaneous Australian and UK prosecutions against mothers, pointing out that the distrust and vilification [End Page 502] of mothers as potential cold-blooded murderers of their babies is a fairly recent phenomenon of the 1990s. Emma argues that the sense that women had been getting away with murder due to inadequate medical knowledge about unexplained infant deaths, endangering their other children, and foiling the administration of justice ended up fuelling the investigation, prosecution, and media reporting on Folbigg's case.

In Chapter 2, Emma provides a chronology of the children's deaths and Folbigg's prosecution. While the deaths of her first three infants had been attributed to natural causes—sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in two cases and epilepsy in the third—the death of her fourth child was described as "undetermined" but possibly caused by heart disease. It was not until Folbigg left her husband after the fourth death, telling him to throw out all of her personal effects, that an investigation was commenced. Her husband was approached by a police officer who was interested in whether he had any suspicions about his children's deaths. He denied any, but when he found and read two of Folbigg's remaining diaries (she had destroyed the others on Mother's Day after the last death), he turned them over to police and changed his evidence substantially. She was charged almost two years after the last death and was convicted for all four deaths. Folbigg insisted on her innocence through four appeal efforts, but only succeeded in a sentence reduction from thirty to forty years' maximum imprisonment to thirty years.5

Chapter 3 provides historical context to the shifts in the medical community's characterization of unexplained infant deaths, which was first cast decisively as a medical problem in the 1960s. SIDS, or naturally caused death, was the predominant theory through the 1970s and 1980s, with corresponding solutions of apnea monitoring and recommendations against stomach and side-sleep positions for infants. Emma explores the emergence of murder as a medical theory for infant deaths commencing in the 1990s as shaped by legal events (a dramatic confession by a mother to murdering five of her infants) and cultural understandings of mothering.

Emma then engages in a careful and detailed review of the state of knowledge about unexplained infant death at the time of the investigation and trial of Folbigg. In Chapter 4, she explains that unless there is physical evidence of smothering, which is often lacking for infants, there is simply no way to distinguish between murder and SIDS. She also reviews the conflicting evidence for the claim that multiple unexplained infant deaths within a family provide evidence of homicide. In particular, she highlights three UK appeal decisions, the first of which was rendered ten days after...


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pp. 502-508
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