The University of Newcastle, Australia

Truth, justice and cold case TV

Armed with insatiable curiosity, an immense respect for the dead, and much expertise, forensic anthropologist, and criminologist Dr Xanthé Mallett brings to Newcastle her constant quest for truth and justice.

From fresh crime scenes and natural disasters through to ancient cold cases and cyber crime, Xanthé is determined to uncover what occurred and maximize dignity for both deceased victims and those left behind.

Xanthé is internationally renowned for her work across several areas of research related to both forensic anthropology and criminology.

The identification of people using their DNA (both suspects in criminal investigatins as well as missing or deceased persons) and developing our understanding of human craniofacial biometrics are major areas of interest.

Her knowledge of on-line child sex abuse and related behaviours, coupled with her role in developing groundbreaking hand identification techniques, have been pivotal in securing several high profile pedophile convictions.

Another area of focus is understanding and combatting bias within legal proceedings, with Xanthé investigating cases she believes to be unjust.

A passionate educator, Xanthé began lecturing in Criminology at UON in early 2017.

FROM BRADFORD TO QUANTICO

Always fascinated by science, Xanthé chose archaeological science for her undergrad degree from England’s University of Bradford.

“The courses I enjoyed were all related to humans, like the study of evolution, and the analsyis of human and animal bones,” Xanthé says.

Next came a research Masters in biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge, UK.

“That was interesting - measuring skulls, and trying to figure out how the face and head adapts to extreme environments (such as a really hot or really cold environment) on a population level.”

Next, Xanthé studied for a PhD in forensic facial recognition at the University of Sheffield, for which she was also awarded a joint scholarship from the University and the FBI.

It is a testament to Xanthé’s humility that a mention of her presentation, aged 22, of this doctoral work to a full room of agents at Quantico is almost cursory.

Continuing this stream of her research, Xanthé has since explored the science, statistics and law around using facial biometrics to identify potential criminals, publishing on the admissibility of computer-aided forensic facial comparison, and facial identification for the courts.

MAKING IDENTIFICATIONS

After graduating with her doctorate, Xanthé spent five years working as a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee’s (UK) Center for Anatomy and Human Identification.

Under team leader Professor Dame Sue Black, Xanthé contributed to several projects including a true crime cold case television series for the BBC called History Cold Case, which was adapted for the US by National Geographic (and retitled The Decrypters).

With Professor Black and other colleagues, Xanthé contributed to several books, chapters, journal articles, and edited academic collections.

Topics covered include disaster victim Identification, forensic anthropology, and forensic hand image comparison as an aid for paedophile investigations.

“One of the things that we were asked by several police forces to look at was a system of comparison to determine of an indecent assault suspect and offender from images could be the same person,” Xanthé explains.

“And a lot of the time you can reject it and say they are definitively not the same person, and people forget how important that is.”

“That is pretty rewarding, when you do something that can help to potentially stop someone from hurting children, or somebody can potentially be found innocent if they are not in fact guilty, which is equally important.”

WOMEN AND THE COURT

Related to this quest for justice is Xanthé’s research interest in the efficacy of expert witness evidence, and the impact of external influences that may result in bias or prejudice in the decision making processes of jurors.

This work resulted in her book, Mothers Who Murder: And Infamous Miscarriages of Justice (Penguin Random House, 2014).

The title refers to the moral judgements and trial by media that affect the justice process for women, particularly those accused of maternal filicide (intentional murder of a child by a parent).

“As soon as a mum is accused, as far as the public is concerned there is nothing that is considered a severe enough punishment, she could be hung drawn and quartered, you know?” Xanthé says.

Xanthé has been examining the cases of convicted Australian ‘baby-killers’ Kathleen Folbigg and Keli Lane.

“I am campaigning for Kathleen Folbigg not necessarily because I believe in her innocence, but I believe there is a justice process that has failed in this case,” Xanthé explains.

A perceived failure of justice is why Xanthé is also working with the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative at RMIT on the case of Keli Lane.

“There is no body, no motive, no witnesses, and no forensic evidence indicating any crime has taken place, so how can she be in prison for murder?” she asks.

“In cases like this, where the media is portraying these women as evil incarnate, how could they possibly get a fair trial?”

“We have to challenge the misconceptions, or preconceptions, that power this form of injustice. If it could happen to them, it could happen to anybody.”

TWO SIDES OF CRIME

Since 2013, Xanthé has been based in Sydney for its proximity to her media outreach commitments, and the taphonomic research facility where she is conducting research.

The facility is the first of its kind in Australia, unlocking truths about how the Australian environment, insect life, weather, light, and seasonal change affect scenes of death.

Xanthé is also looking into doing more true crime work on Australian television work, such as in Channel Ten’s 2014 Wanted series. Xanthé contributed to the series, which utilised the media to generate new leads regarding forensic investigations.

Not only does Xanthé see the media as an important tool for bringing forward evidence, it is also an important avenue to recruit future practitioners.

“If I can inspire just one person, especially one female, to stay in science or to go to university I think that is important,” Xanthé says.

Hoping to expand the UON Criminology program to include at least basic forensics, Xanthé believes the social process and physical process of crime are of equal importance.

“To understand the scene you have to understand how the people interacted with the scene, which means you have to understand people.”

“A lot of people think it is odd – marrying physical science and social science, but when it comes to crime, they are really two parts of the same thing.”