Five revelations from the ‘shocking’ Queensland forensic lab DNA report

A police task force is to re-examine thousands of major criminal cases after questions were raised over claims about DNA testing.

DNA testing thresholds were changed in 2018, meaning some samples with low levels were flagged as “no DNA detected” or “insufficient DNA for further processing”.

A commission investigating the issue delivered an interim report on the Queensland state-run forensic laboratory yesterday.

Public hearings have yet to begin – but already the inquiry’s tentative findings have sent shockwaves throughout government and the judiciary.

He made three recommendations, all of which were accepted by the state government.

Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk called the findings “shocking”.

Expert witness statements given in court will be corrected, while a police task force has been set up to re-examine samples in potentially thousands of major criminal cases.

Former Court of Appeal President Walter Sofronoff KC’s interim report spans 40 pages, but here are five takeaways.

1. Witness statements are “false”

When DNA test results are used in criminal cases, forensic pathologists make statements to the police, prosecution, and defense regarding the results.

The investigation has so far found statements issued by Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services (FSS) since early 2018 that said ‘insufficient DNA for further processing’ or ‘No DNA detected’ were ‘false ‘ or ‘misleading’.

This is because while the sample may have contained a measurable low level of DNA, it was also possible that further testing may have shown partial or complete DNA profiles.

“This statement implies certainty that the sample cannot yield a usable profile when this is not known,” says Sofronoff’s report.

“I am of the view that the practice of presenting these false statements as genuine expert evidence is a profound problem for the administration of criminal justice, for the integrity of police investigations and for the decisions made by victims. of criminal acts.”

Mr Sofronoff said the discovery that witness statements contained statements that were false was “deeply concerning”, but said not all statements would have a “material effect” on investigations or criminal proceedings.

2. Four types of cases could have been involved

The report sets out four types of cases where the statement “insufficient DNA for further processing” could have had a significant impact on the outcome.

  • Where the line of police investigation could have been “unnecessarily weakened or abandoned” by a lack of DNA evidence, when it was, in fact, available.
  • Where a prosecutor might have decided not to initiate or discontinue criminal proceedings, or accepted a plea for a lesser offense, due to the lack of DNA evidence when it could have been obtained.
  • Where the absence of DNA evidence “could have considerably weakened the prosecution’s case”.
  • When “the lack of evidence of an offender’s DNA in a sexual assault case where, due to the circumstances of the offence, the offender’s DNA was expected to be found, could jeopardize the ‘a plaintiff truthful to such a degree that he or she (or the parents of a plaintiff child are) no longer willing to sue under such conditions’.

Mr Sofronoff said in the report that this did not mean that a conviction involving DNA evidence was in doubt – simply that people or parties could have gone a different route.

3. Not an oppressive burden

Although the sample may have contained a measurable low level of DNA, it was also possible that further testing may have shown partial or complete DNA profiles.(Provided: AFP)

Scientists in senior positions at the FSS have been told that Mr Sofronoff is considering recommending that the lab release new witness statements to correct previous ones.

But, according to the interim report, a veteran scientist – nicknamed ‘Mrs F’ – told the inquest that if FSS were to do this, the lab would be severely hampered in its ability to do its current job, and the time and effort needed would far outweigh any benefit that might be obtained in the rare event.

Mr. Sofronoff rejected that.

“I do not accept that rectification of the current situation, in which some parties may have been materially misled about the evidence, places an oppressive burden on the resources of the FSS,” he said.

“I do not accept that it is impossible to obtain the necessary correction by effective means.

“I am not persuaded that it is better to spare the FSS the work in question than to ensure that there has been no miscarriage of justice in individual cases, even if it is not only one case.”

4. Paper options

Prior to the start of 2018, all samples in major crime cases were fully tested by the FSS, “unless they returned less than 0.001 nanograms per microliter.”

Then, in January that year, the FSS presented the Queensland Police Service with an “options paper”, according to the report.

“This paper suggests that processing major crime samples with quantities between 0.001 ng/µL and 0.0088 ng/µL was not an efficient use of resources,” he said.

“It was pointed out that there were advantages to abandoning such tests: the possibility of potentially reallocating staff time currently allocated to the processing, interpretation and reporting of “auto-microcon” samples, to samples with higher DNA yield, improving the time to results on these samples.”

A meeting took place between FSS and QPS, and a few days later QPS agreed that these samples were no longer to be processed unless QPS requested that it be done – meaning a new practice.

This threshold was removed when the commission of inquiry was convened in June this year.

5. Proportion of samples capable of generating a usable profile

The report says the proportion of samples able to generate a usable DNA profile was 10.6%, not 1.86%.

“Some of these expert opinions may have been critical to a serious crime investigation, decision to prosecute, or the outcome of a trial,” the report said.

“Such statements continue to circulate – with potentially operational effect on investigators and the courts of fact.”

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