true crime

One of the most shocking moments in the Keli Lane series came from an unlikely source.

Eight years after Sydney woman Keli Lane was jailed for 18 years for killing her two-day-old baby, the case is once again in the public eye, courtesy of ABC documentary series, Exposed.

As the program recounts, the newborn’s body was never found, no confession was ever made. Instead, the former water polo player’s conviction hinged largely on circumstantial evidence, on a series of lies that included multiple secret pregnancies.

Between the ages of 17 and 21, Lane fell pregnant four times. The first two were terminated, the third resulted in adoption. The fourth – Tegan, the one at the centre of the case – disappeared.

During the trial, the public and the media devoured every salacious detail, not least of which the fact that both Lane’s full-term pregnancies occurred without the knowledge of her parents, partner or teammates. Her sex life was combed over both in the courtroom and in the papers; dredging up ideals about female morality and promiscuity.

The persistence of that narrative was captured in just two sentences on Exposed this week. Sentences that came from a surprising source: the then NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery QC, a man who now serves as Chair of anti-domestic violence organisation, White Ribbon.

Nicholas Cowdrey QC. Image: ABC.

The 72-year-old told the program that he did not perceive Lane to be a risk to other children, but...

"She seemed to be a bit of a risk to the virile young male portion of the community," he said, chuckling. Then, after a pause, added, "That's not grounds for putting her in prison, of course."

Speaking to Mamamia, the ABC journalist behind Exposed, Caro Meldrum-Hanna, said the room fell silent when Cowdery spoke those words.

"I was speechless myself," she said.

"For him it was probably an off-the-cuff remark, perhaps an attempt at humour and probably not as loaded as it was."

It's clear from the reaction to Cowdery's comments that his 'humour' fell flat. Criticism on social media ranged from "disappointed" to "disgusted", with several viewers accusing him of "slut shaming" Lane.

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In a statement issued on Wednesday, White Ribbon said Cowdery agrees "he did not express himself well".

The Mamamia OutLoud team chat to Caro Meldrum-Hanna about Nicholas Cowdery's comments.

"White Ribbon Australia’s Chair, Nicholas Cowdery AM QC, acknowledges that his comments and response to questions about Keli Lane on ABC documentary Exposed were not respectful, and he apologises," the statement read.

"White Ribbon Australia supports the concerted effort that is needed to consciously change societies’ use of respectful language to promote equality, respect and inclusion of women everywhere."

Speaking to Exposed, Lane revealed that she was date raped at just 15; an experience she believes may have contributed to how she handled her pregnancies.

“I was quite young, I was intoxicated. I think the lack of ownership… I don’t think I valued my body and my choices and my boundaries, because everybody just seemed to be so frivolous with it," she said.

“And I think for whatever reason me feeling out of control, that all contributed to my choices… falling pregnant and not knowing how to manage it.”

Meldrum-Hanna noted that judgement of Lane's sex life was - and is still - prominent in discussions of the case.

"There was a lot of slut-shaming back then, and it's clear there's a lot of slut-shaming now," she told Mamamia.

"We're receiving the same comments from people, as well; 'Why didn't she shut her legs?' 'Why didn't she take the pill?'... It's always on the girl to take that responsibility with contraception. So that was a bit frustrating.

"But it's alive and well, those sort of judgements.

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