The real life version of CSI – experts open up on the secrets of the dead

Get a taste of Sisters in Crime’s 10th Law Week event on Friday 20 May, 6pm.

John Silvester interviewed two of the speakers  – Soren Blau, a forensic  anthropologist, and Yeliena Baber, a forensic pathologist – for his Naked City column in Saturday’s Age, 14 May.

Soren and the third speaker, Lyndall Smythe, a forensic dentist, will be on 774 ABC Melbourne at 8.30pm Tuesday 17 May

Here’s John’s article (courtesy of The Age):

For people who always tell the truth in court they have become practised liars at parties when over cool drinks they are asked the traditional icebreaker: “And what do you do?”
It is not that they have anything to hide, indeed they spend their lives discovering the secrets of those who can no longer speak for themselves.
Their cover stories will never be as interesting as the truth for these women spend their professional lives proving that dead men do actually tell tales.

John Silvester
Their work may be endlessly fascinating but sometimes, to avoid a barrage of follow-up questions, they change the subject or just tell professional pork-ies while munching on party pies.

One thing is certain, their cover stories will never be as interesting as the truth for these women spend their professional lives proving that dead men do actually tell tales.

It takes a truckload of qualifications and a certain mindset to spend a good part of your life with the dead. While the downside is there is a distinct lack of banter with clients, the upside for the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine boffins is they clearly love their work.

These are the experts who stare into the chest of a murder victim with the same intent as a mechanic looking for the malfunction in a motor.

There is no place for emotion or outrage or, even worse, shortcuts. And while they are key parts of the homicide investigation they are not part of the investigative team. If they help solve a murder that is just a byproduct – their job is to seek the truth – not a conviction.

They are no one’s cheerleaders and remain fiercely independent, which means their court evidence is invariably accepted as impartial.

Next week a panel of these forensic crime experts will open up on the world of autopsies, crime scenes, shallow graves and deep secrets.

As part of Law Week, Sisters in Crime Australia will present the gruesomely titled Bones (and Flesh) Never Lie – Or Do They? In basic terms a top cop
(former assistant commissioner Sandra Nicholson) will interview forensic specialists on bones, bodies and teeth to explain how science tells the truth if you ask the right questions.

This is the real world of CSI, minus the designer heels, make-up and scripted one-liners. And let’s face it: When most of us meet these types we are no
longer in any position to ask clever questions.

Which is why we took the opportunity to have a chat while we remain in (relatively) rude health. And we found some pretty normal people who just happen
to hang around with corpses five days a week.

Dr Soren Blau expected to spend her career as an archaeologist – that is until she went hands on in a cemetery dig in Israel. Then she realised she
didn’t want to spend a lifetime “digging up pots and pans”.

After completing her masters she was eventually appointed the VIFM senior forensic anthropologist, which means she is our real life Dr Temperance Brennan from the hit series Bones.

She soon found you can have all the qualifications in the world but it is only when you are literally up to your armpits in unidentified bodies that
you’re in the forensic frontline. “I just didn’t have an idea of the detail required,” she says.

To do the job it is not just about dusting off a few bones in a sterile lab before solving the unsolvable.

It requires a strong stomach, a strong will and by the end of a shift, a particularly strong shower gel.

The work has taken Blau to some of the worst scenes the world has to offer – including Congo, Timor and Uzbekistan, often working in single graves with 
up to eight bodies. Then there was the February 2009 Black Saturday fires that claimed 173 victims. "In many cases we are able to give families at least some answers, which is a privilege."

She is called out to scenes to oversee the recovery of a body with the least disturbance to make sure key clues are not destroyed in the process.
On the day we visited the institute she had just examined a skull found at a deceased estate. It proved to be Aboriginal and a relic of a time when 
native remains were treated as collectables.

Not every lead results in a riveting murder investigation as around twice a day people find bones that have to be checked, although in the overwhelming 
case they are more likely to be lamb chops than Lord Lucan.

Dr Yeliena Baber knew by the age of five that not only did she want to be a doctor but she would specialise in surgery.

She was a successful plastic surgeon in Britain but after the birth of her two daughters she wanted more predictable hours and became an anatomical 
pathologist – a job she found "incredibly dull – every day was the same, just staring into a microscope".

Then after attending an autopsy she knew, "That's exactly what I wanted to do".

Now as a VIFM forensic pathologist she conducts around 300 a year with up to four on a busy day. "There is never a dull post-mortem," she says brightly. We will take her word for it.

Most of us are frightened of death and therefore don't think about the end of life's journey. These experts are way beyond that and see bodies as jigsaw puzzles that help complete the puzzle.

Decomposition, violent injuries and incomplete corpses just make the challenges greater.

"There can be an obvious cause of death such as gunshot or stabbing but we have to look deeper," Baber says.

The head of pathology, Dr Linda Iles, says, "It is the little things. A tiny abrasion on the face may not seem important at the time but it could be 
vital at court.

"You never quite know where the case is going to go. It might not be all about an axe in the head."

In a case that played out like a CSI episode Baber went to a scene where there was no sign of forced entry and police, not unreasonably, were leaning towards suicide. "I wasn't comfortable with it. Something wasn't quite right."

It turned out the killer had set up the suicide scenario but the forensic evidence would show it was murder.

Many years ago police found a man dead from a gunshot wound to the head and the weapon several metres away. A murder, you would think, until indentationson the stock matched the bite pattern of Macca, the man's dog. Police concluded the fellow had shot himself and Macca had dragged the gun away – perhaps in a futile bid to save his master.

As part of her training Baber had to perform autopsies on children, something that as a mother she approached with dread.
Her boss simply told her it was part of the job and to suck it up. Instead of being traumatised she was fascinated and now specialises in paediatric 
Most of those cases are not about whodunit but who didn't.

When a child dies suddenly without explanation often the parents are twisted with guilt, fearing they are to blame.

"We are the last medical experts to deal with the child. Sometimes we can help deal with guilt issues with grieving parents," Baber says."There was a 
woman who lost a child who was convinced it was connected with drinking from a dog's bowl a few days earlier. It had nothing to do with it."

All these experts like to relax watching crime shows. The original Underbelly was a hit, The Bridge, The Wire and Silent Witness rate highly while CSI isa must.

While cop shows often grate with real cops these experts enjoy the fantasy version of their worlds. "The way they tramp around the crime scene with their perfect lipstick and make-up just perfect," says Baber.

While Blau observes, "No one gets any blood on them. They can solve cases in 40 minutes and still look gorgeous."

Baber says if she is trapped into talking about work she will often be asked what is the worst thing she has seen. "I just say, 'You don't want to know'.
"People are fascinated. They think it is a lot more glamorous than it really is."

And yet there are real life investigations far more dramatic than any TV series. In one case a tiny piece of skin found in the throat of a victim could easily have been ignored.

The homicide detective doing the interview was well aware of the wound on the suspect's hand but would not raise it until the pathologist's find was con-firmed.

The skin was brought to the interview in a jar. Even to the naked eye it was an obvious match to the hand wound.

Faced with the certain knowledge he would be identified through DNA the suspect confessed not to one murder but three.

His name was Paul Charles Denyer, the Frankston serial killer who would have struck again if he hadn't been caught. Sometimes science is a wonderful 

Bones (and flesh) never lie. . . or do they? Friday, May 20, 6pm. Victoria University.

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