Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
The content of this book is summed up on the cover “Lost lives, justice delayed, criminals walking free: exposing Australia’s most wrongful convictions”. Author, criminologist and TV presenter, Dr Xanthé Mallett, has once again tapped into the rich vein of Australian true crime to provide disturbing examples of innocent people sent to jail. Despite compelling evidence of the wrongs, the overturning of a conviction often takes decades and longer again for any compensation.
Dr Mallett knows her topic; she is a forensic expert who works with police forces across Australia using advanced DNA technologies. She has written two previous books: Mothers who Murder and Cold Case Investigations.
Reasonable Doubt has six chapters, each themed on an Individual. All but one are convicted men who have spent long periods in jail and for whom Dr Mallett presents evidence for miscarriage of justice. Three men have been exonerated but the other two are still serving sentences. The final case is a woman – the infamous Lawyer X – who has not been charged, but whose corruptly-obtained evidence has had major repercussions for the Victoria Police.
All of the cases have received media coverage and may be familiar to many readers. But the media are constrained by newsworthiness, brevity and legal constraints, making it difficult for us to follow the twists and turns that occur over long periods. Dr Mallett’s summaries provide a coherent picture, with plenty of detail about people, places and process.
Each of the major cases is complemented with other relevant examples as well as expert summaries of pertinent legal considerations – such as new versus fresh evidence, false confessions and the weight of evidence.
By highlighting the unresolved cases, Reasonable Doubt serves an advocacy role – increasing pressure on the relevant authorities and, perhaps, recruiting some supporters. The complex mixture of legal, governance and media actions mean that successfully reversing an incorrect decision is torturous.
An obvious lesson from this type of book is how easily the investigative and judicial processes can go wrong. The case study approach offers a detailed description of how things went off the rails in each instance. Despite a clear intent by the author: “I honestly believe that the only way to improve the system is to openly and directly address the flaws” (p249), the case studies provide limited information about systemic failures and possible remedies. The many errors – a mix of professional incompetence, mistaken identity and conflicting witness statements – are clear enough, but the solutions are elusive.
Some contextual analysis, perhaps in a companion volume, would answer some of the questions that are begged here. How often does our judicial system fail? What percentage of the prison population is innocent? How many violent criminals are still at large because their crime has been blamed on an innocent person?
Dr Mallett does note that progressing wrongful convictions requires someone who will champion the cause for the long haul. Even then, people who are wrongly convicted, and their family and friends, soon learn the difficulty in getting the right people to listen.
“You may be asking yourself why it even matters, as this is never going to happen to anyone you know. Well, I guarantee that everyone who has been wrongly convicted would say the same thing “(p244).
Overall, this is an informative digest: entertaining, easy to read but by no means lightweight. For this reviewer, it was also disconcerting to know that there but for the grace of God, go I.
By Dr Xanthé Mallett
Pan Macmillan Australia
256pp; $32.99 (paperback)