Books

Cover of book: A Witness of Fact

Drew Rooke
A Witness of Fact

In A Witness of Fact, Drew Rooke dissects the career of Colin Manock, an English immigrant who retired in 1995 as South Australia’s chief forensic pathologist after a career spanning almost three decades. Rooke carefully weighs its parts, puts samples under a microscope, and examines the evidence from every angle. The result looks a lot like a crime scene.

On many occasions, the evidence Manock tendered in court put innocent people behind bars and let the guilty walk free. From the start of his career here in Australia, colleagues and other specialists raised doubts about his qualifications, experience and judgement. Manock stared down his critics and advanced through the ranks. Whether due to laziness, sloppiness or self-confidence that bordered on arrogance, he often neglected to carry out what are considered the standard forensic procedures – taking the temperature of the deceased, for example, weighing all major organs, or taking multiple tissue samples for microscopic analysis. He resisted oversight and peer review and reacted defensively, even aggressively, when challenged. He never expressed contrition for his mistakes, no matter how serious the consequences.

Some of Manock’s actions appear perverse in the extreme. In three cases where infants died with severe injuries that other medical professionals believed indicated violent abuse, Manock insisted they died of bronchopneumonia. His verdict effectively blocked the police from pursuing homicide investigations – despite one mother confessing she’d previously broken her baby’s arm in a rage. Reviewing one of these cases, the coroner said that Manock’s examination of the body “basically achieved the opposite of its proper purpose, in that it closed off lines of investigation rather than opening them up”.

When the body of a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy was found by the side of the road with horrific wounds – some in a peculiar, striated pattern – Manock concluded he’d been killed in a hit-and-run, end of story. Years later, two men confessed to beating him to death with a brass rod that had a threaded end. This left him with the striated wounds, which Manock had asserted were from his corduroy trousers.

Robyn Milera is the sister-in-law of Ngarrindjeri and Narrunga man Derek Bromley. Manock’s testimony helped to send Bromley to prison for a murder he insists he didn’t commit. While advocating Bromley’s release, Milera completed a law degree and conducted extensive research into Manock’s career: “I think [Manock] really got off on being a part of the prosecution,” she told Rooke.

Yet Rooke discovered that Manock also appalled and disgusted some of the police who worked with him. One, a witness to a particularly shocking act detailed in the book, described him as a “show-pony” with “fucked-up ethics” who “got a kick out of” desecrating corpses. He seems to have reserved some of his worst professional misdeeds for Aboriginal victims and suspects. This resonates with forensic science’s least glorious historical legacy – described by Rooke as the “industrial-scale theft, collection and trade of bodies and skeletons” – which in Australia primarily meant the theft of Aboriginal people’s bodies and skeletons.

Today, Manock lives as a recluse with his dominatrix partner, Mistress Gabrielle. He declined through her to speak with Rooke or to answer any of the writer’s questions. Poking around the internet, Rooke discovered that one of Mistress Gabrielle’s online videos shows off her “medical suite” – complete with autopsy kit.

Advances in science are increasingly calling into question previous assumptions about what such things as bite marks and fingerprints can prove. In the United States, “false or misleading forensic evidence” has been a factor in nearly one in four of the 2400-plus wrongful convictions recorded since 1989. In Australia, Rooke tells us, it’s more like one in three.

Leaders in the field and other medical and legal experts, as well as victim and prisoner advocates, have been calling for years for an inquiry, even a royal commission, into Manock’s conduct. They also want examined, in the words of the president of Civil Liberties Australia, Dr Kristine Klugman, “the failure of the justice system – judges, political and legal office holders, the various professional associations – to deal with the situation”. Yet as Rooke points out, successive South Australian governments have declined to act. Powerful people, faced with the possibility of being held to account, tend to dig in their heels.

In 2013, Manock’s critics scored a win when South Australia passed a law guaranteeing the right of appeal on the basis of fresh and compelling evidence. Thanks to this law, Henry Keogh, who served almost 20 years for murdering his fiancée despite avowing his innocence and solely because of Manock’s testimony, won his freedom in 2014. Ordering Keogh’s release, the Court of Criminal Appeal stated that in his case, Manock had “materially misled the prosecution, the defence, the trial judge and the jury”. Keogh welcomed the $2.5 million the court awarded as compensation for wrongful imprisonment, but said it could never make up for the “more than 7000 sunrises and sunsets” he never got to see.

In 2016, the then Council of Attorneys-General announced a national review of the reliability of forensic evidence as used in Australian courts. That could have brought about meaningful, wide-ranging reform if Scott Morrison’s government hadn’t severely restricted the scope of the review in 2021. Leading forensic scientists also want the establishment of an independent review board to which the wrongfully accused could appeal forensics-based judgements. So far, nada. Justice Michael Kirby asks, “What is it about our country that always sees us limping behind … where justice is at stake”?

Scribe Publications, 256pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "A Witness of Fact, Drew Rooke".

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Linda Jaivin is the author of 12 books.

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