Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following contains names and images of people who have died.
In the early hours of Saturday 1 October 1983, a routine police patrol in the small town of Mount Isa, Queensland, discovered the brutally beaten body of a young woman left for dead in a dark hotel car park.
Patricia Carlton was alive, but only barely, having suffered severe injuries from sexual assault and multiple violent blows to the head with a metal pipe.
As medics tried, but failed, to revive her, police had already identified their suspect – Carlton’s boyfriend at the time, Kelvin Condren.
Despite the fact it was later found Condren had been picked up for drunk and disorderly behaviour and was incarcerated at the time of the crime, a confession and witness testimony were all that was needed to close the case quickly. And – under alleged duress – it's exactly what was delivered.
It’s the stuff of nightmares for most of us. Being tied to a crime we didn't commit. Desperate pleas of innocence echoing unheard from behind bars. The sheer terror as we learn of circumstantial evidence bolstering the case against us.
<Kelvin Condren after his release in 1990 (c) Library Nwn NewsCorp Australia
And yet, Kelvin Condren's conviction is only one of dozens of wrongful convictions in Australia.
After multiple arduous appeals, Condren’s name was cleared in 1990, but 38 years after her murder, Patricia Carlton’s real killer remains unidentified.
Officers involved in the original investigations have left, witnesses passed away, and evidence gathers dust whilst today’s force deal with the influx of new crimes that demand their attention. And yet, the family and friends of victims remain frozen in time without answers.
the family and friends of victims remain frozen in time without answers.
So, who fights for justice when the world has moved on?
Criminologist Associate Professor Xanthé Mallett is among the world's leading forensic anthropologists dissecting human behaviour. Her expansive work in the field has honed her interest in reexamining cold cases.
"I've seen firsthand the impact on family and friends as a result of waiting years for answers. Not only is life stolen from the wrongfully convicted, but any further investigations cease, meaning the real perpetrator remains at large," she says.
"Understandably, the effect of the injustice is felt through communities for generations. It's something I feel passionate about helping to combat."
Harnessing her role as an educator, Xanthé now sits at the helm of the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative Newcastle.
An extension of the RMIT program, the Initiative is an opportunity for criminology and law students across Australia and the world to work together with authorities on piecing together evidence to reinvigorate cold cases.
It’s win-win. Under the supervision of experienced practitioners like Xanthé and colleagues Shaun McCarthy and Peter Gogarty, students get to apply their learnings to real cases, whilst time-poor partner authorities like the police receive the findings to help bolster their investigations.
Over 2,000 kilometres away from Mount Isa in Grafton, NSW, Katrina Stanbury was just a tiny newborn when Patricia Carlton’s body was discovered by police.
Little did she know, the case would play a significant role in her future.
"the effect of the injustice is felt through communities for generations."
Now a third-year criminology major, the moment Katrina began to dig into Kelvin Condren’s conviction was the moment she knew she’d found the right path. Having received support as a victim of violence herself earlier in life, fighting for those without a voice had already led her to mature age study.
“Working on the Innocence Initiative just solidified my decision,” she says.
“You become so invested in the work because you know you’re doing something which has the potential to help the victims and family members who are still so desperate for justice.
“As well as the Patricia Carlton case, I worked on another cold case in Germany involving a young female victim who’d been found assaulted in a field 30 years ago. She is alive but living with major disability as a result of the attack, and no one has ever been convicted.”
In both projects, Katrina helped to piece together key timelines crucial to the cases.
“There’s another well-known suspect in the murder of Patricia Carlton who is serving two consecutive sentences of life imprisonment for similar crimes against another Aboriginal woman. He’s actually confessed to Carlton’s murder – and numerous others – and has been shown to have been in Mount Isa on the night of her attack.
“Part of my involvement was mapping out his life – where he’d been and when – to corroborate his story.
“In the German case, we were also given detail of a potential suspect to investigate.”
Working with a key contact from the German authorities, as well as other students from Murdoch Uni and the UK, the team used historical records and online resources to piece together a map of the crime.
“You become so invested in the work because you know you’re doing something which has the potential to help the victims and family members who are still so desperate for justice."
“We worked with our German contact to translate old police reports and did reconnaissance work to assess how long it would take a child the age of the victim to move across key locations in the crime, as opposed to an adult.
“We found discrepancies in some of the timings, which we hope will be useful in progressing the investigation.”
The close relationship between the University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Law School is a unique element of the Initiative, promoting key collaboration between students to encourage enquiring minds.
“Law students are incredibly analytical and great with dissecting legislation, whereas with a social science background, we come at things a little more creatively and are encouraged to think outside the box – we learnt so much from each other.
“There aren’t many people who can say they get the training we do. Xanthé Mallett is a world-renowned criminologist who works on high-profile cold cases, Shaun McCarthy continues to play a role in the judicial review of the Kathleen Folbigg case and Peter Gogarty is a fierce advocate for survivors of child sex abuse. We’re absolutely learning from the best.”
With the newly opened Clarence Corrections Centre in Grafton, Katrina hopes to complete a master’s before returning home where it all began.
There are people there in need of support, and I know my skills will help fill a gap many regional places are facing.
"There are people there in need of support, and I know my skills will help fill a gap many regional places are facing.”