Renowned forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett on cold cases and the warm glare of TV lights

Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Dominic Lorrimer
Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Dominic Lorrimer

EVEN over lunch at Antojitos Mexcian restaurant in Newcastle West, Xanthe Mallett misses nothing.

Before she has ordered, Dr Mallett has cast her eye over the place, reporting back that the bathroom and the open-view kitchen both look very good.

Hang on, aren't I meant to be doing the scrutinising? Then again, when your dining partner is a renowned forensic anthropologist and criminologist, whose expertise lies in examining the tiniest details, you just figure you're being observed.

“It’s just habit,” Mallett shrugs, as she sips on a Tamarindo. “Looking around, taking it all in. Watching people.

“I like watching people.”

“Where did that come from?,” I ask.

“I don’t know, being nosy really,” she replies. “Just the interactions, trying to guess what they’re talking about without being able to hear them. Just from the body language, how people are getting on."

“You’re not reading me, are you?”

“No, no, no. People do worry though!”

OBSERVER: Renowned forensic anthropologist and criminologist Dr Xanthe Mallett at lunch. Picture: Marina Neil

OBSERVER: Renowned forensic anthropologist and criminologist Dr Xanthe Mallett at lunch. Picture: Marina Neil

As she dines on a vegetarian quesadilla, Xanthe Mallett is a delightful and animated lunch conversationalist, even when the talk is predominantly about crime and death.

Mallett says she can go into great detail when answering questions about what she does, and “they may not want the level of detail they’ve just received”. But people love to hear what she has to say. They are fascinated by her work.

“Anthropology is the study of man, so a forensic anthropologist is basically someone who studies anything to do with, normally, human remains or soft tissue,” she explains.

Is that role entwined with criminology?

“No, not necessarily,” she replies. “Forensic anthropology is biology, it’s a hard science discipline, whereas criminology is a social science, so a soft science.

"Most people seem to do one or the other, whereas I like the combination of the two, because understanding how a crime scene presents is all about how the people interacted in it. So if you want to understand the scene, you need to understand the people. To me, it’s two parts of the same thing.”

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Marina Neil

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Marina Neil

XANTHE Mallett is the product of two disciplines, art and science. Her mother was a dancer and her father is an engineer.

As for her first name, there is no Greek connection; her Mum just liked "Xanthe".

“She liked the name when my sister was born. My Dad didn’t,” Mallett says. “So my sister got called Chantal, because my Dad was like, ‘No’. Clearly in the four years that followed, he got worn down.”

Born in Scotland in 1976 and growing up in England, Mallett planned to be a dancer but was always interested in science.

“My Mum used to hate putting her hands into my pockets, because I was always collecting things, slugs and snails,” she recalls. “I was always wanting to know how things worked.”

Mallett’s passion for science took over her dancing ambitions. She considered becoming a veterinarian but “I thought when I was a kid I wasn’t clever enough to be a vet”. What’s more, she couldn’t bear the thought of having to euthanase animals. So Mallett was planning to study for a sports degree and work with disabled children.

Just before beginning the course, she was in a car crash, badly damaging her knee and crushing her study plans: “At the time it had a negative impact, but now I wouldn’t take it back, because it steers you on a different path that you never would have thought of.”

Initially, that different path led to Australia for an extended holiday, with the 20-year-old visiting relatives and taking stock.

“I loved it," she says of her time in Australia. "The lifestyle. The temperatures. That kind of general outdoor living.”

She returned to England and studied archaeological sciences.

“I didn’t want to stay in archaeology,” Mallett says. “It’s interesting, but it didn’t really have an impact today, in the same way that you can help people by doing something forensic.”

Xanthe Mallett at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Marina Neil

Xanthe Mallett at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Marina Neil

Mallett was looking for a greater purpose in what she did, “otherwise it wasn’t going to be fulfilling”, so she shifted her post-graduate studies towards modern life - and death.

For her PhD, Mallett’s research was part of a larger project to improve facial identification from CCTV images. In the decade or so since she worked on that project, Mallett says, the technology and knowledge surrounding facial identification has come a long way.

Could those advances be misused to trace not just criminals or missing people, but all citizens?

“Could be”, she replies and goes on to say that similar arguments surrounding privacy and misuse apply to uploading DNA samples: “But if you can catch serial killers who have been free for 40 years, then do you not do it, because there’s always somebody who could potentially misuse it?”

After graduating, Mallett was lecturing in forensic human identification at the University of Dundee. She also used her knowledge to help police identify child sex offenders from images.

While she was in Dundee, television found Xanthe Mallett. Her boss and one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, Professor Sue Black, was keen to highlight what they did. When a TV series was to be made, Professor Black told Mallett she would front it: “And I said, ‘Oh, OK’. And it was great fun.”

Mallett appeared on two TV programs, History Cold Case in Britain and The Decrypters in the US, using archaeological cases to illustrate forensic science. More than reconstruct historical faces, the shows allowed the viewing public to put a face to Xanthe Mallett. She became a star.

Xanthe Mallett during her time as a senior lecturer at the University of New England. Picture: Barry Smith

Xanthe Mallett during her time as a senior lecturer at the University of New England. Picture: Barry Smith

“Quite often what I used to do, I’d be blonde for filming, and then go back to my natural colour when I wasn’t filming,” she says. “It’s amazing how [with] something really simple, you can regain your anonymity. People are very superficial in what they see. So they may go, ‘Oh, I think I recognise your face’, and I go, ‘No, no, one of those faces’.”

But she loved receiving emails from children, asking, ‘How do I get into science?’

While Mallett demonstrated to audiences what science could actually do, the feast of crime-science dramas continued to feed the viewing public’s imagination.

“I think it’s hindered what people think science can do,” she says of the TV drama shows. “They think that now you press a button, and you get everything, and it’s easy. But it has opened them up to different sciences. Before Bones, people would go, ‘What’s forensic anthropology?’ Now, I go, ‘Bones. But real.’ And they go, ‘Oh, I know what you mean’."

She may have been a face of forensic science in Britain, but by early 2012, Xanthe Mallett wanted to progress in her field, away from familiar surroundings: “I knew if I wanted to be a grown-up, I had to step away and be somewhere new.”

She returned to a place she already knew, emigrating to Australia with her husband, Neil, and lecturing in criminology at the University of New England. A couple of years ago came an offer to establish a criminology course at the University of Newcastle.

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Marina Neil

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Marina Neil

“It was exciting to be able to do that from the ground,” Mallett says. The course is quickly growing in popularity, she says, with students from fields as diverse as law and psychology to literature.

“People just love extremes, extremes of behaviour, and true crime is massive. Everyone seems to have a fascination with it. I don’t know why that is. Clearly I like it!”

Mallett likes what she does so much that she has continued talking about it in the media. As a result, she commutes to Newcastle; she lives in Sydney. Mallett has appeared as an expert on a string of Australian true crime TV programs. She has most recently been seen in Murder, Lies and Alibis.

Mallett has also written a book with the confronting title, Mothers Who Murder. The book also taps into a topic she explored in her PhD research, how forensic evidence is used in courts, and how that is represented could lead to a miscarriage of justice.

More than write about the issue, Mallett has provided science-related advice to a group called the Bridge of Hope Innocence Initiative, which looks at cases where a person may have been wrongfully convicted.

“People say to me, ‘Do you think they did it?’, and I go, ‘It doesn’t matter whether I think they did it or not," Mallett explains.

"The point is, ‘Is there evidence to put somebody in prison?’. And if the answer is ‘No’, they shouldn’t be there. Because, otherwise, what justice is there for anybody?”

Xanthe Mallett at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Marina Neil

Xanthe Mallett at lunch with Scott Bevan. Picture: Marina Neil

Through her work, Mallett has examined the cases of two well-known women behind bars: Kathleen Folbigg, convicted of killing her four children, and Keli Lane, in prison for the murder of her newborn baby.

“I visit Kathleen and Keli Lane,” she says. “They both wrote to me after the book came out, so I’ve been going to see them since then.

“They’re both different to what I expected. They’re both very driven and committed,and I think it takes so much willpower and stamina to keep going.

“I like them more than I expected. I didn’t expect to dislike them. Keli Lane is very articulate, bright, and charismatic. I’m not saying that’s a surprise, but I was surprised how likeable she was, because all you see of her is in the media, looking very closed. That’s not who she is at all.”

Xanthe Mallett at lunch with Scott Bevan, talking about her life as a forensic anthropologist - and lifting DNA samples off a glass. Picture: Marina Neil

Xanthe Mallett at lunch with Scott Bevan, talking about her life as a forensic anthropologist - and lifting DNA samples off a glass. Picture: Marina Neil

Rather than stick to science, does Mallett wish she had studied law?

“I don’t think I’d want to be a lawyer per se. I think a lot of the law is about wanting to win,” she replies. “I like the science side of it, you still have an impact without being embedded.”

Mallett also works with police forces across Australia on a range of cases, using her kit bag of forensic science skills, which is also handy for intriguing lunch companions.

“Your DNA could be lifted off that glass,” she says. “You could get a facial likeness from the DNA on that glass.”

To give herself a break, Mallett loves to run. She jogs for about 10 kilometres on a running machine most days.

“I’m not meant to run. I’ve had 11 [knee] operations. My surgeon is not impressed. But what are you going to do?”

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Marina Neil

Forensic anthropologist and criminologist Xanthe Mallett. Picture: Marina Neil

What about the pain?

“I just ignore it. I do enjoy [running] and I always feel better afterwards.”

Despite her working with the evidence of the worst humans can do to each other, Mallett still embraces humanity. And she says it’s important to not forget about the victims of crimes.

“Often everyone knows the name of the offender,” she says. “Everyone in here would know Ivan Milat, but how many people can name any of his victims? All they do is become one of the seven backpackers.

“I think it’s important to keep reminding people they are people.

"And then when police have gone over and above, or whoever it may be, that we celebrate those heroes, because they’re like the light in the dark, aren’t they?”