Book 'Reasonable Doubt' exposes Australia's worst wrongful convictions

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist with the University of Newcastle, Dr Xanthé Mallett, has published a book which exposes Australia’s worst wrongful convictions.

Reasonable Doubt book cover

Reasonable Doubt, published by Pan McMillan, was a passion project for Xanthé who has been investigating miscarriages of justice since completing her PhD in the United Kingdom in 2007. A major component of that was evaluating expert evidence and when that can go wrong.

“The more cases I’ve become involved in in Australia the more informed I become about the problems here, and I’ve found they do mirror what I saw in the UK. I want to raise awareness that these miscarriages of justice do occur,” she said.

“People are under the impression that the justice system works. That’s generally true, but miscarriages of justice happen more often than people think, and I believe it’s useful if the public are more aware of that so they can be a little more open minded when these situations arise.”

The cases in Reasonable Doubt were chosen because they reflect a series of key themes that Xanthé says are common causes of miscarriages of justice:

  • people who are disadvantaged generally (such as those with a low socio-economic status, experiencing cultural barriers or mental health problems) tend to be highly represented as they lack the resources and knowledge to fight a flawed system;
  • problems with expert evidence - misinterpreted evidence or experts overstating their findings;
  • police tunnel vision – when they fail to consider other evidence;
  • erroneous eyewitness identifications.

“We really don’t know how often miscarriages of justice occur. It’s very difficult for people once they have been found guilty to challenge the system. We do know that it is a systemic problem with some underlying causes that we can actually address.”

Xanthé says the case of Khalid Baker, featured in the book, encapsulates all of the key themes. Khalid and his friend stood trial in 2008 jointly accused of killing Albert Snowball, who was pushed from a window at a warehouse party in Melbourne in 2005, and died of his injuries two days later. Baker, an 18-year-old champion boxer, was found guilty. His friend who was 17 at the time of the incident, was found not guilty.

“Khalid Baker is from a minority group and there was racial bias present in the case. Even though this was mostly unintentional we need to recognise this has an impact in his conviction. The police decided that Khalid was involved in the altercation, which ended the life of Snowball, even though a number of witnesses said he wasn’t,” she said. “Khalid’s friend has always admitted he was the one tussling with Snowball, and Khalid was not involved, but he was found not guilty of murder. It’s an awful story, Khalid lost 13 years of his life in prison even though he had nothing to do with Snowball’s death, but he still exudes positivity, Khalid is an inspiration to other people who have been wrongfully convicted. This is a good example of how things can go wrong but people can still fight for justice.”

The book also features the ‘Lawyer X’ scandal involving Nicola Gobbo, who was the lawyer for some of Melbourne’s drug bosses while also acting as a police informant, breaking the lawyer/client confidentiality privilege. Xanthé says the scandal will rock the criminal justice system.

“I think we are going to see years of appeals from the 1297 people identified who could potentially to have their cases re-examined as a result of barrister Nicola Gobbo’s informing. I also hope it draws some attention to the questionable past practices of Victoria Police and their unethical decisions around the use of police informants.”

Xanthé’s hope is that the public read the book and engage with the debate she raises.

“When it comes to people’s lives and the accusation of criminal conduct, we have to be so careful. If one person reads this book who ends up sitting on a jury and the book leaves their mind a little more open and questions what they are seeing, it’s done its job. The aim is to get people to question things and not to take everything at face value. You could have the most experienced expert give evidence at a trial, but it doesn’t mean they’re right.”

With the boom in interest in the true crime genre, particularly with women between 30 – 50, Xanthé says it’s an ideal time to raise some of the big questions she presents in the book.

“I want people to realise this can happen to anybody. We need to be careful of where we are getting our information about these cases, as some sources are unreliable and not objective. It is affecting people’s lives and we have to be very careful who we accuse because it’s very easy to destroy people’s lives in this way.”

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