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Stranger than fiction

Stranger than fiction

Whether prosecuting high-profile murders or indulging his passion for photography, senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC has seen some strange things. He talks to Stephanie Quine about a life…

Whether prosecuting high-profile murders or indulging his passion for photography, senior crown prosecutor Mark Tedeschi QC has seen some strange things. He talks to Stephanie Quine about a life in law lived in front of and behind the lens.

LENS ON LIFE: Mark Tedeschi, QC, has represented NSW citizens to prosecute some of the state's highest-profile killers. But despite his standing in the DPP, he spends almost as much time behind the lens as he does on law. Photo by Matthew Granger

On a Monday morning around 50 years ago, a young Mark Tedeschi visited court for the first time. Ten years old and wide-eyed, he watched as lines of people arrested over the weekend - many of them prostitutes - were paraded through court and slapped with fines.

Tedeschi's Italian-born father, who had been working as a court interpreter at the time, turned to his son and said, "Do you know that that prostitute is a man?"

Having never heard of a transvestite before, the young Tedeschi learned that fact could indeed be stranger than fiction.

Half a century later, many of Tedeschi's high-profile cases have been just that, and if he is not the best-known lawyer in Sydney, many of his cases are. New South Wales' most senior crown prosecutor since 1997, Tedeschi has come face to face with some of Australia's most notorious criminals, including backpacker killer Ivan Milat, John Newman's assassin Phuong Ngo, Gordon Wood (who is currently awaiting appeal), double murderer Bruce Burrell, the matricidal Kathleen Folbigg and underworld figure Arthur "Neddy" Smith.

And the incredulity of some of these cases is not lost on Tedeschi. "If you put the facts of some of the cases I've done into a book, pretended it was fiction and gave it to an ordinary member of the public to read, they'd say, 'Oh, that's all very interesting but it would never really happen in real life'," says Tedeschi. "But it does."

Tedeschi has waded through some incredible and complex cases. Ivan Milat's trial alone lasted 12 weeks and included 145 witnesses, and the hundreds of lies told by Kellie Lane, who was this year convicted of murdering her newborn baby, involved a huge amount of work.

Renowned for his dramatic presence and legal knowledge, Tedeschi has the ability to capture and carry the attention of a jury through weeks of complex evidence. Artfully constructed performances, full of telling detail and narrative compel, make him formidable in building a case. And - since one mistake by a lawyer can influence an entire trial -preparation is paramount.

"An enormous amount of thought and preparation can go into the way you're going to present the facts and the law to a jury of ordinary people, in a way that makes it appealing, memorable and understandable to them," says Tedeschi, adding that "being yourself" is also critical for presenting a case in a genuine, palatable way.

Somewhat surprisingly, given his role and reputation, Tedeschi is quiet and considered in conversation. He can attribute his merciless cross-examinations and powerful closing statements to such a detached and methodical style which has successfully secured numerous high profile convictions.

But Tedeschi is not without his critics. Some argue he is overly adversarial and flamboyant in his role, causing him to make mistakes. He was recently criticised over the 50 rhetorical questions - and the supposed changing of events - he put to the jury during his closing address in the 2008 trial of Gordon Wood.

"I find to some extent that because of the formality of the courtroom, it's a little bit removed from reality"

Whatever critics say about him, though, one constant in Tedeschi's professional life is media attention; so much so that the constant hype generated by some of Tedeschi's most controversial cases might make remaining focused on the case a trial in itself.

But Tedeschi says he doesn't find it difficult to block out the buzz.

"When you're actually in a trial, you are so focused on ... the jury and on the judge, on your opponent and on the evidence ... the last thing you can worry about is the media or the public gallery," he says. "If you allow the media's presence to influence how you present a case - in any way at all - you will fall flat on your face."

Tedeschi maintains that he has never been overwhelmed by the tragedy or emotion of a case to the extent that he felt it was affecting his professionalism.

"I find to some extent that because of the formality of the courtroom, it's a little bit removed from reality," he says. He also says that a certain detachment and emotional distance, that "everybody tries to maintain" in court, helps him to do what is, after all, just a job.

But there have been a few times when reality struck.

One such moment was during the trial of Ivan Milat, in which Tedeschi had to explain in detail 356 exhibits and hundreds of photographs - many of which were horrific reminders of what exactly happened to his seven young victims.

"They had some re-enactments of the death scenes, and I was so horrified by what I saw, I literally could not watch it"

Tedeschi says he tried to provide support to the victims' parents during the trial, explaining what was happening and what was likely to happen the next day. He maintained a detachment from the tragedy, he says, until many years later when a program about Milat's murders aired on television.

"They had some re-enactments of the death scenes, and I was so horrified by what I saw, I literally could not watch it. I had to leave the room and it just played on my mind for weeks afterwards," he recalls.

"In a way, the verbal description [in court] was a bit removed emotionally from the tragedy of what had happened. To see a visual re-enactment was quite different, and it affected me greatly."

When such things happen, Tedeschi finds release through another passion he indulges far from the world of wigs and gowns: photography.

Unlike the logic and rationality he employs in court, on the streets of Sydney, Tedeschi can succumb to spontaneity and passion, to seek genuine emotion in people and places. Capturing scenes from locales like 'Little Vietnam' in Cabramatta or 'the Block' in Redfern - places he says should be "cherished and preserved" - is something he enjoys greatly.

But for Tedeschi, photography is not a mere hobby and, since he began taking it seriously in 1988, he has had 12 solo exhibitions and hundreds of his images bought by the Art Gallery of NSW and the state and national libraries.

In 2008, his eye for cheeky juxtaposition produced a series of photographs entitled 'Legal Chameleons' which featured some the country's best-known barristers in their legal regalia doing exceptionally "non-lawyerly" things, like breastfeeding, boxing and waiting for the perfect wave.

One could say Tedeschi is proof that highly-trained - and often highly-stressed - professionals have passions and interests outside the formal traditions of the courts.

And this is something he sees as crucial. "It's important to maintain your interests outside the law," says Tedeschi.

"I think you maintain your sanity like that, because it can get very intense when you're practising law -and not just criminal law."

Tedeschi also says his family and the camaraderie he shares with the 50-odd crown prosecutors in the DPP city chambers are vital for good health.

"You go to people that you know, like and trust and you discuss your cases. I think it has a very salutary effect."

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