By Caroline Baum
It’s typical of an over-achiever like Mark Tedeschi that he’s not just a Sydney graduate, he’s a third-generation alumnus. First came his beloved great-grandmother Rosina, a pre-war immigrant who taught Italian at the University, followed by his mother, himself and his children (including Simon, the well-known pianist.)
A photograph of Rosina receiving an honorary doctorate sits behind his desk, a reminder of the family’s Italian roots and successful integration into Australian society at the highest levels of public service. Today Tedeschi is top prosecutor in NSW, overseeing a team of 90 lawyers working for the Department of Public Prosecutions. He has been responsible for securing some of the state’s most high-profile convictions, against Ivan Milat, Bruce Burrell and Gordon Wood.
Mild-mannered and gracious, giving no hint of the steeliness that such cases involve, Tedeschi is proud of his origins. “My family came from Turin and Verona,” he says, acknowledging that his surname is also the Italian word for ‘German’, which indicates that further back, their origins were Teutonic. But while Tedeschi apologises for his poor command of the Italian language and confesses that he is no lover of opera, he recognises stereotypical traits – sentimentality and volubility – in himself that we think of as typically Italian. “My colleagues say that I use my hands a lot in court.”
Tedeschi came to the University of Sydney in 1969 straight from Sydney Grammar School and graduated from law in 1974. He was essentially studious rather than social. “I did not go wild, I was conservative and moderate, as I am today,” he says, sitting in his cluttered chambers overlooking Hyde Park. He enjoys courtroom dramas on TV (Law and Order is his favourite) but says the depiction of his University contemporary, the prominent barrister Charles Waterstreet in Rake “made me angry. Yes, Charlie is flamboyant, cheeky, creative, clever and big-hearted but he’s not as extreme as that.”
The corridor to Tedeschi’s office is lined with black and white prints from his recently-released book of photography, Shooting Around Corners: portraits of grinning children in Redfern’s Block (an area whose redevelopment he decries), and images of solemn police officers and court staff. It’s all part of his ongoing passion for photography, pursued in every spare moment.
His rooms are humanised by personal mementos: strappy-leafed plants hint at his Sunday gardener status, calligraphy brushes are souvenirs from a trip to China. Aboriginal art bought on a trip to Central Australia adds a bold accent of colour amid shelves of leather-bound legal volumes and plastic binders. Two panama hats suggest lunchtime walks on sunnier days. The large round fish tank remains sadly empty and in need of serious attention. There are also a few bottles of wine on a sideboard – gifts from grateful families of victims, a quiet reminder of the high emotion surrounding his work.
For the past year Tedeschi has been obsessed in his spare time by a project that has required him to go beyond his normal boundaries of investigation and explore new territory: now he can add ‘author’ to a considerable list of achievements.
Tedeschi has written the story of one of Australia’s most intriguing and scandalous cases: Eugenia Falleni, born in 1875, a woman who spent 22 years living in Sydney as a man named Harry Crawford, and who went to trial in 1920 charged with the murder of her first ‘wife’. The case has fascinated him for the past seven years, ever since he first spoke of it at the gala dinner for the 175th anniversary of the NSW Crown prosecution office, describing it as one of the most significant trials prosecuted by his forebears.
“The transcript of the trial shocked me, because her defence counsel made so many errors,” he says. “An injustice was done to her and someone more shrewd could have saved her. I also felt a connection to Eugenia because we both had Italian ancestry. Also, the place where the death that led to her being charged with murder was the park near the river at Lane Cove, somewhere I used to play as a child.”
"I was afraid that I might not be able to write the bits about human psychology."
Describing himself as a novice at writing, Tedeschi had the good sense to engage a mentor to help him with the task, choosing Alan Gold, the author of several bestselling works of historical fiction. “I was afraid that I might not be able to write the bits about human psychology,” he admits. But of course his skill as a prosecutor relies on an acute understanding of human nature and all its flaws and foibles.
“I found I could write those parts that required me to speculate on what might have been going through Eugenia and the other protagonists’ minds. My professional life had prepared me for that more than I expected,” he says. Tedeschi describes his approach to everything he tackles as “driven. I devote a lot of time to personal projects, whether it’s this book or my photographs because I genuinely believe the journey is as important as the destination.”
In the case of Eugenia, he brings his calm, deliberate insights to a case that was overheated at the time as a public scandal, focusing on the sexual deception that she perpetrated, fooling two wives with the use of a fake penis fashioned of wood and leather that she employed with great skill. Today that object has disappeared, though, as Tedeschi delights in recounting, “the Justice and Police Museum has something catalogued as ‘the article’ (the euphemism of the day), except that it looks like a draft excluder: it’s 30 centimetres long and five centimetres thick.” He’d like to see a film made of the Falleni case, claiming it has the right elements of drama and intrigue but won’t speculate about who he imagines in the role.
Tedeschi likes to think in images. It was Rosina who gave him his first camera at the age of 12. Today, he is a Nikon man, passionate about taking portraits. “I like to study emotion and the candid unguarded moment,” he says of his subjects, including artists, footballers and legal associates. He regrets never having had the opportunity to photograph the artist Margaret Olley (“she said she was too busy”) and would love to shoot the Governor, Her Excellency Marie Bashir. “But she’s so fair; she said if she let me, she’d have to let everyone else.”
And if he had the chance to photograph Eugenia? “It would be as Harry Crawford, at the Empire Hotel in Annandale, his favourite drinking spot, and thankfully, still there. He would have felt comfortable, secure and at peace, so I would have had a good chance of capturing his essence.”
Eugenia, A True Story of Adversity, Tragedy, Crime and Courage is published by Simon and Schuster (Image of Eugenia Falleni courtesy of Simon and Schuster). Shooting Around Corners, is published by the Beagle Press.