The Guardian • Issue #2054

Queensland’s forensic debacle

Lab work.

Photo: Imcfhkrems – Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On 16th May 2023, the Queensland Health Minister, Yvette D’Ath, announced that Queensland’s Health Forensic and Scientific Services (QFSS) have a backlog of more than 10,000 cases awaiting DNA testing, placing the QFSS under “incredible pressure.” Two days later Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced an urgent cabinet reshuffle, with Shannon Fentiman taking over the health portfolio and D’Ath returning to her attorney-general position.

The cabinet changes in key ministerial positions are an attempt to deal with the government’s bungling of youth crime, housing, and health issues.

Queensland’s forensic testing backlog has created a “debacle” that places increased pressure on the judicial system. A damning inquiry into the state’s forensic testing regime at QFSS, found that many forensic DNA samples, the genetic material such as blood and skin left at the crime scene, went untested and the laboratory incorrectly ruled other samples as “insufficient.”

Health Minister D’Ath said, “We do have a backlog in relation to just the normal evidence that comes through the doors of forensic services every week. That is due to a range of reasons including shortage of the scientists but also because we did lose staff through the commission of inquiry and had to rebuild our processes.”

In December 2022, following a four-month public inquiry by Former judge Walter Sofronoff KC, thousands of serious criminal cases had to be reviewed. For years the QFSS had failed to properly test DNA evidence, due to “grave maladministration involving dishonesty.” The public hearings into the QFSS revealed a “toxic” workplace culture with “divided allegiances” and the “complete failure” of management to take responsibility. “The methods, systems and processes used at the forensic DNA laboratory do not, in many ways, measure up to best practice.”

Initial problems with the QFSS were first revealed a decade ago, after a police investigation into the stabbing death of Shandee Blackburn in Mackay. The blood samples taken at the scene, came back as having “no DNA evidence” and the alleged murderer was acquitted. In late 2021, following adverse publicity against the Forensic Lab, the Queensland Premier and the Health Minister were forced to address the issues. The Inquiry revealed that the Managing Scientist, Cathie Allen, had allegedly misled her immediate supervisor and senior police. In May 2022 the Queensland Police Service (QPS) delivered a written submission to the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce, asserting their lack of confidence in the QFSS dealing with sexual assault cases.

In September 2022, Dr Bruce Budowle, former head of the FBI’s forensic unit, gave evidence to the Commission of Inquiry into the QFSS. The unusually high testing threshold adopted by the laboratory in 2018 was designed to save money and improve efficiency, but resulted in thousands of crime scene samples not being tested. Dr Budowle said the QPS approved the Queensland Health options paper without comprehending the medical terms used.

Issues with underfunding have, “led to outcomes which prioritised some QPS priorities (such as turnaround times) over broader criminal justice system priorities such as obtaining all forensic evidence relevant to a case, and explaining clearly the uncertainties and caveats that should properly be placed on results reported by the laboratory.”

The failures are down to the laboratory being an appendage of the Department of Health, mismanagement and dishonesty by senior managers, and a culture which discouraged open discussion of scientific disagreements.

In the case of retrials resulting from botched DNA results, Queensland prohibits double jeopardy in successive prosecutions for the same offence, with the exception of murder and tainted acquittals. The ruling against double jeopardy within Australia’s criminal justice system is recognised by s34 of the Human Rights Act 2019 (Queensland), which provides: “A person must not be punished more than once for an offence in relation to which the person has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with law.”

The only exceptions are in the case of murder, when “fresh and compelling evidence” is uncovered, and tainted acquittals. These exceptions, introduced in the Amendment to the Double Jeopardy Bill 2007 of Section 678B of the Criminal Code 1899 (Queensland), ensure the courts can retry, “a person acquitted of murder or a lesser offence to be retried for murder if there is fresh and compelling evidence of guilt.”

The Queensland government has announced it will provide $95 million to establish a new framework to set up reforms to DNA and forensic services. Premier Palaszczuk said the government would take steps to address the recommendations handed down by the Commissioner in his final report. The Premier promised to “get to the bottom of issues surrounding DNA testing in Queensland.”

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