DEAD RIGHT, IN THE NAME OF THE LAW – Saturday June 8 2013

– For a man who has seen more dead people than Count Dracula, Professor Stephen Cordner seems to have remained a remarkably balanced fellow.
His modest Southbank office provides few clues to the nature of his daily business. There are a couple of family snaps, a bottle of commemorative port, but the microscope on the desk and the weighty texts in the bookshelf covering criminal law, evidence and pathology suggests this bloke is at the cutting edge of cutting edges.
On the day we arrived at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (appropriately positioned in a dead-end street) the good prof had to be summonsed from the mortuary, where he was hands-on in the latest case.
Theses days, the uber-experienced pathologist conducts about 50 autopsies a year, down from the 700 when working at London’s Guy’s Hospital back in the 1980s.
For many years he has been one of a handful of “go to” guys called in to help at scenes of such horror that it would send many of us to sip on a chilled formaldehyde with a twist of lemon.
His CV includes Black Saturday bushfires, Bali bombing, Japanese earthquake, plus war crime missions to Iraq, Myanmar, Kosovo and the former state of Yugoslavia.
While on holiday in Fiji, a longtime associate, then assistant commissioner Moses Driver, asked him to leave his poolside umbrella-crusted fruit cocktail and check a skeleton, which may have been the remains of a murder victim.
In the senior policeman’s giant office the professor was given a cup of the traditional local kava (a brew that tastes like an old jock’s old jocks). As he struggled politely with the drink he noticed Driver failed to join him. When asked why, the smiling policeman said he couldn’t touch the stuff on medical advice.
Which probably shows how the canny copper survived at least two coups and a mutiny with his gizzards intact.
When we ask how many bodies he has seen, Cordner simply shrugs at the futility of the question. Does more mean better, or just burnt out?
To him it only matters if you stop learning, for if you start looking back you will begin to miss what’s in front of you. And in his business, if you miss something, the someone can get away with murder.
Cordner says glossy CSI-type TV shows give a twisted view of the real business of death investigation. Certainly, down at the institute’s complex we saw no rampant signs of breast augmentation or Botox treatment, at least not on the professor.
“The characters on TV tend to be 10 people wrapped into one,” he says. “They are part expert witness and part investigator.” If anything, in the real world pathologists are part umpire. Cordner and his crew do not work for the police or the prosecution, they work for the court: “We are not the who-done-it people, we are the what-happened people.”
He says the professional respect between Homicide Squad detectives and pathologists means there is “no trespassing between the roles”. And apart from the squad’s famous “Christmas knees-up”, they do not socialise out of hours.
Cordner says his people have never been pressured to produce a result to help convict a killer, and many times they have established that what looks like murder most foul is a death from natural causes.
Conversations with his peers from regions in which justice is a negotiation rather than a rule has reinforced to him the importance of remaining fiercely independent.
An overseas colleague told of being presented with a bullet-riddled body by gun-toting authorities who advised him the deceased had obviously died of a heart attack. He duly signed the death certificate.
When Cordner asked what would have happened if he resisted, the pathologist said: “They would have first killed my pets, then my wife, and if I didn’t stop, eventually me.”
He says that some South African pathologists learnt to ignore signs of torture, and in Third World nations police have been known to shop for the so-called experts who will ignore the (very) bleeding obvious.
In fact, Cordner says that as his team is neutral, he is surprised defence lawyers don’t contact his office for updates, preferring to rely on the final written reports: “They should ring us for a chat. What have they got to lose?” Nor is he upset if defences use their own experts to interpret the findings of the state’s 10 pathologists.
And it’s not all black and white. In about 5% of cases the cause of death cannot be determined, and sometimes there may be more than one contributing factor, which can seriously muddy the water.
A man with a bad heart is attacked, robbed and dies. The pathologist has to decide whether it was the dodgy ticker or the dodgy micker that done him in.
Some cases seem destined to remain controversial, such as the 1984 death of Jennifer Tanner, which police originally treated as a suicide, even though she was shot twice in the head. To Cordner, who reviewed the case, there is no controversy.
“Until someone shows me evidence to the contrary, my view is this was a homicide,” he maintains. Then there are those rare moments in which, just like in the movies, the pathologist cracks the case.
Frankston triple serial killer Paul Charles Denyer was forced to confess when evidence linking him to one of the killings was found during an autopsy.
“Sometimes we can be a little bit useful to investigators,” Cordner says with a touch of understatement.
The institute was heavily involved in the police Operation Belier, which helped identify missing persons wrongly buried in pauper’s graves. It was an expensive business, with at least 10 bodies exhumed and pathologists using DNA, forensic dentists and anthropologists to make positive matches. Police were able to solve 150 cases, found some missing people alive, identified unknown remains and laid murder charges in others.
It was through DNA from a surviving relative that Cordner’s team was able to identify Ned Kelly’s remains, exhumed from Pentridge Prison more than 130 years after he was hanged.
After more than 30 years in the business, the professor is professional and serious without being morbid. In 1985, he became the foundation director of the institute when there was an urgent need for Victoria’s post-death services to move out of the dark ages. To suggest it was an inexact science was a major understatement. We recall visits to the old Flinders Street Coroner’s Court and morgue as barbaric.
Black humour was the standard defence to scenes that would never be repeated today.
The story goes that there was an old assistant, whose job included sluicing out the joint, who had been around so long he was sometimes used to provide an unofficial second opinion.
On one occasion, a homicide detective swears he saw the old chap in worker’s overalls with a roll-your-own stuck to his bottom lip invited to opine. He looked into the chest cavity, dropping ash from a cigarette along the way, before declaring with confidence: “Heart attack, Doc”, which was duly recorded on appropriate paperwork. After a particularly trying case, one old-time pathologist would wander down to Flinders Street Station and aimlessly ride the “red rattlers” for hours until the demons in his head were silenced. Others simply turned to drink to drown theirs.
From his teens the young Cordner was drawn to forensic medicine. He is a third-generation doctor. His father, Donald (a Melbourne football legend and 1946 Brownlow medallist) worked for years as the Diamond Creek GP when it was still a country town.
Doctor Don was a proactive medic. When he saw an obviously drunk driver weaving along a country road he pulled him over, grabbed the keys from the ignition and told the motorist he could pick them up at the local police station.
When Don knew where his son’s interest lay he took him to visit an old pathologist for some advice. Perhaps because the chap had never had to develop a bedside manner, his answer was predictably brusque. It came as one word: “Don’t.” But he did, and has no regrets.
The institute’s building seems quiet, which bellies the daily traffic that arrives through another discreet entrance. About 5500 death a year are referred to the coroner, and around 5000 bodies end up at the institute.
In half the cases, full autopsies are performed. Back in the dark old days, while it was not exactly open house, even the (extremely) odd reporter could be found in the post-mortem area.
Now Cordner tells staff to imagine a relative of the deceased is standing next to you: “Everyone deserves respect.” He prefers the term mortuary to morgue, which he says has a “black, Gothic feeling”.
“People are naturally suspicious of what goes on behind closed doors,” he says. So the real question is how can you spend so much time with dead people and not go mental? Belief – pure and simple.
“The best defence for stress? The same here as it is for hospital staff, police and ambulance officers, is to believe that what you do is useful and valuable.”
And after all these years Stephen Cordner remains a true believer – John Silvester


About Jumpin' Jack Cash

Deep connections are the most important aspect of my existence. I don’t care if people don’t know what they want. I love books. I’m cynical of love stories, although I’m romantic. I adore gardens. I like women who challenge me. I love the rain as an excuse to stay inside and dream. I'm furiously impatient. If I ask you a question best to tell me the truth as I'm likely to already know the answer. I'm a carnivore. I continuously underestimate the magic of fresh flowers in my home. I love warm rain in the summer. My mood elevates to epic proportions when the sun shines. Tell me not to do something and I'll do it twice and take photos. Running is my antidepressant. I loathe lies. I rarely forgive a lie. Loyalty and honesty are my most noble virtues, and I value them more than anything in other people. I love to love, and am able to fall in love very quickly, although it's only ever happened once. I understood myself and fixed myself only after destroying myself. My greatest excitement comes from deliberately getting lost in foreign cities. I can be extremely loud and frighteningly silent. I hate insinuations. I love storms. Justice for all. I'm a proud man, but welcome the influence of the feminine soul. I have two sisters. I’m a dreamer. I’m a deep thinker. Don’t deal with guilt trips or drama that well. I'm extremely stubborn and persistent. I'm brilliant at keeping secrets. I love driving. I become absolutely and completely lost while watching a burning fire. When the toast pops from the toaster I’m never ready and shit myself. I play the guitar, but require much improvement. Solitude and warmth of the sun are perfect together. I’ve been married once and now divorced. I’m a music junkie. Chocolate mousse is the shit. I curse too much. I find it difficult to make friends. I spent four years as a firefighter. I’ve run my own company since 1991. Bright lights, big cities. I’ve been an executive producer of a feature film. Some people don’t care, and that’s the biggest let-down of the human race. There are cures and solutions for many evils, but no remedy for the worst of them all - the apathy of human beings. The sound of the Italian language being spoken is as good as my favourite music. I hate corrupt cops. I relentlessly and passionately pursue anybody and anything that sets my soul on fire. I'm a dog lover, and all my dogs are considered family members. I have an obsession with photography. I have some close friends who are household names, but shall always remain anonymous. I’m crazy but not lazy. Losing a soulmate has hurt me badly. My two young sons are the nucleus of my universe. I love airports. I love freedom. If you are dishonest or disloyal, I can erase you from my life and memory immediately and permanently. I yearn to explore, dream about and discover as many friendships, deep connections and places, one possibly can in a lifetime.
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