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Queensland DNA Testing Inquiry

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Queensland DNA Testing Inquiry
DNA test under scrutiny in Forensic lab in queensland
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An inquiry committee has been set up against a forensic DNA testing department at Queensland’s government-run laboratory Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services (FSS) laboratory, Australia. The first public hearing was conducted on 26 September 2022.

The state-run lab is under scrutiny after years of mounting concerns over testing failures. Last week’s bombshell interim report from Walter Sofronoff KC found “untrue” or “misleading” statements had been issued to the courts.

It has been stated that there were many criminal cases where further testing might have yielded results, but they were reported as having “no DNA detected” or “DNA insufficient for further processing“. It has raised major concerns about potential miscarriages of justice if police investigations were weakened or abandoned by a lack of DNA evidence.

Queensland police have established Task Force Helix to investigate potentially thousands of cases between early 2018 and June 2022 where DNA samples had not met the laboratory’s threshold for further testing.

Two senior staff members at the laboratory were last week stood down pending the outcome of the inquiry while the Union raised concerns about staff shortages and budget pressures. 

Kylie Rika, a senior scientist working at the laboratory has told the commission of inquiry that it gave her a “sickening feeling” while working at the laboratory and she called for an overhaul of its “production-line” testing processes.

She started working in the laboratory in 2005 and remains a senior scientist in the forensic DNA unit. She said she voiced concerns about changing the threshold at which samples received further testing in 2018, but was ignored in a “toxic” working environment.

Matthew Hickey, the lawyer representing two managers at the laboratory, questioned Rika about her perceptions of how she was treated by the managers Catherine Allen and Justin Howes were potentially incorrect. To this question Rika replied she had been “ignored” and “excluded”.

She said, “The overall culture of the laboratory and all the things that have happened over the years has given me a sickening feeling about coming to work and having to constantly fight [to do the right thing] by the science, by the cases. And even by my own staff members, because I advocate very strongly for them and what they need to do their job properly.”

Counsel for Queensland Health Glen Rice KC told the inquiry that since 2008 there was a “major shift” from scientists being given full samples of items from crime scenes to pre-prepared samples that arrived in tubes ready for processing.

He asked Ms Rika “at that point did the process at the lab change from a case management style to a production line style?” and she replied “yes”. She said, “I was told by my managers that the Queensland police wanted to free up as much of our time as possible by holding onto all of the items and doing the sampling themselves and just sending us a sample in a tube, to free up as much of our time as they could – because the examination of large items is a very time-consuming process.”  

He also asked her whether the move to a production line approach in the testing of crime scene samples saved time. Miss Rika said that somehow it saved time but it has affected the quality of results. She added that she would advocate for a return to a case management approach to crime sample testing at the lab.

In the coming days the inquiry is due to hear from another scientist working at the lab as well as Queensland police officers. The final report is due back in December 2022.

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