Shows such as Bones and CSI have done the seemingly unthinkable: they’ve made forensic science cool, sexy even. On television, every scientist is beautiful, always impeccably dressed and groomed, and witty to boot.
It seems unlikely this would be the case in the real world of forensics. Charisma, good looks and a biting sense of humour are hardly required skills for lab work.
However, in the case of forensic anthropologist and author Dr Xanthe Mallett, it would seem that TV isn’t too far off the mark. Dr Mallett looks as though she’d be just as comfortable at Paris fashion week in a designer dress as she would behind a microscope wearing a white coat.
Xanthe Mallett has become a public face for forensics, appearing on television shows like Wanted and History Cold Case. Her camera-ready looks and engaging conversation style make her an easy person to pay attention to.
She attributes much of her transition from scientist to media personality to her creative background. She trained as a dancer throughout her early life.
“My mum was a dancer and my dad was an engineer, so I’m this weird hybrid of performer and superbrain. I kind of popped out somewhere in the middle. I went to a performing arts school and my mum really wanted me to be a dancer but I never got that love of being on the stage,” she says.
“Having that background and that stagecraft, and having the confidence to present in front of people is certainly helping me because a lot of people are terrified of all of that. It is a performance, doing a television show.”
The training is paying off. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Mark Dapin described Xanthe Mallett as “Britain’s most famous forensic anthropologist”.
“Which is not true,” she says laughingly in a clipped British accent reminiscent of Keira Knightley. “I’m not sure how my boss would feel about that! Probably in Australia I’m Britain’s most famous forensic anthropologist, and even maybe the most famous one here, but there are lots of other really excellent researchers working who tend to be less in the media.”
Of course, all the trappings of celebrity would mean nothing if they weren’t backed up by genuine qualifications and intelligence. Xanthe Mallett has these to spare, with a Bachelor degree in archaeological sciences, a Masters in biological anthropological sciences and a PhD in forensic human identification.
Last year, Dr Mallett turned her formidable mind to exploring and challenging some of Australia and Britain’s most controversial crimes in her book, Mothers Who Murder and Infamous Miscarriages of Justice. It’s a dark and confronting topic for anyone, and of course the question of motivation has to be asked.
Dressed in a plum three-quarter sleeve top over tight fitting black jeans, and with a platinum blonde pixie cut, Xanthe Mallett doesn’t seem like someone who would be fascinated by notorious acts and accusations of murder.
“During my PhD I’d looked at miscarriages of justice. I came across Kathleen Folbigg’s case and I saw that Roy Meadow was being quoted,” she says.
Sir Samuel Roy Meadow is a British paediatrician who famously claimed that, in a single family, “one sudden infant death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder, until proved otherwise”. His claims and evidence controversially led to the wrongful conviction of Sally Clark, a British solicitor who was accused of murdering her two baby sons.
“When I saw that I thought ‘that’s worrying’. Then I started looking at it a bit more and I thought a lot of the problems that happened in the early 2000s in the UK are being replicated here. I was really interested by the response in the media. These women are completely vilified and yet no one asks any questions. I wanted to write a book that would challenge people and would make them think again,” Dr Mallett says.
She also hopes her book will help combat the “CSI effect”. This is the phenomenon of juries being so influenced by Hollywood-style forensics that they develop unrealistic expectations about what evidence should be available to them and place undue significance on evidence such as fingerprints.
Dr Mallett has mixed opinions on this. “It’s twofold. Juries expect certain evidence even when it’s not logical or available. They put a lot of weight on fingerprints and DNA – maybe more than should be attributed to it. But on the flipside of that, it has also educated juries that there are a lot of different sciences out there. It’s made them a lot more aware that information is available to them on the Internet. They can be a lot more self-educated now,” she says.
This kind of education is what Xanthe Mallett hopes her book will achieve. She’s eager to see people really questioning evidence rather than making assumptions, as they did in the infamous cases of Lindy Chamberlain and Kathleen Folbigg, which make up the first two chapters of Mothers who Murder.
Dr Mallett hopes readers will go beyond the automatic reaction of labeling women accused of killing their children as “evil” and question what leads to these unthinkable acts. However, she admits that in researching the book, even she was surprised by some crimes.
“I was surprised by the level of depravity of some of the things that people do. I always think that nothing else can surprise me, that I’ve seen the worst that people can do to each other, and then, some of the cases I looked into, I thought ‘No, that’s got me’.”
She mentions the case of Victoria Climbie, an 8-year old girl who was tortured and murdered by her guardians in 2000 in London.
“In what world can people do that to a child? There was no reason in that case; they were just horrible people. I never thought I would think that, that someone is just pure evil,” she says.
Dr Mallett says she experienced deep compassion for the women at the centre of these cases. She pointed out the importance of questioning and understanding these women.
“Whilst I’d never advocate for what they’ve done, you can try to understand it. That’s a much more productive thing to do than simply blaming them, because that doesn’t get anyone anywhere,” she says. “If we understand it, we can help them and make sure it doesn’t happen to other people in the future.”
Dr Xanthe Mallett will appear at the Sydney Writer’s Festival on the panel for ‘Understanding the criminal mind’ tomorrow, Friday, 22 May, 3-4pm, Richard Wherrett Studio, and ‘Dangerous Women, on Sunday, 24 May, 11.30-12.30, Sydney Dance 1.