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Backlog after ‘flawed’ DNA testing could take years

Shannon Fentiman says the bungle at Queensland's troubled DNA lab ‘‘should never have occurred’’.

Shannon Fentiman says the bungle at Queensland's troubled DNA lab ‘‘should never have occurred’’. Photo: AAP

Offenders might have escaped conviction for almost a decade due to a “fundamentally flawed” DNA testing method used by Queensland’s troubled forensic lab.

More than 100,000 samples might need to be re-tested following a second inquiry into the beleaguered lab’s practices.

With 37,000 cases already being reviewed, the backlog could take three years to clear.

Retired Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett recently led the second inquiry, examining an automated DNA extraction method used from 2007 to 2016 known as Project 13.

It was revealed the automated method yielded up to 92 per cent less DNA than the manual technique.

Bennett found it was apparent Project 13 was introduced without being scientifically validated.

“It should never have occurred,” Health Minister Shannon Fentiman said after Bennett’s findings were presented to cabinet and made public on Monday.

“The DNA lab really did away with scientifically sound methodology – they sacrificed that for speed.”

Bennett said offenders might have escaped conviction across nine years due to Project 13, recommending samples between 2007 and 2016 be reviewed.

“No faith can be placed over the whole of the (Project 13) period,” she said in the findings.

“The evidence available for criminal trials may thus have been compromised and convictions that could otherwise have been secured did not occur.”

Up to 103,000 samples might need to be re-tested, with help already sought from New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Fentiman said legislation amendments would be introduced next time parliament sits to extend the amount of time DNA samples can be held.

However, no individual was to blame for implementing Project 13, with Fentiman describing it as an “overall lack of governance”.

“There was a complete lack of accountability and scientific methodology,” she said.

“There was no quality assurance in place.”

Bennett found current DNA lab boss Dr Linzi Wilson-Wilde did not draw attention to Project 13’s deficiencies when she gave evidence at the first inquiry, held last year.

But she said Wilson-Wilde was not deliberately misleading, noting she was making very good progress implementing recommendations from the initial review and overhauling the lab’s culture.

Bennett said there was no evidence that would undermine public confidence in the lab’s current work, given that progress.

“There is a lot of great work being done … I think we’ve now got to all move on,” Fentiman said.

The Health Minister called for the second review after independent forensic scientist Kirsty Wright raised Project 13 concerns.

Wright on Monday said it was a “punch in the guts” for victims that no Project 13 scientist was sacked, adding that she did not trust the lab to re-test samples.

“They (Project 13 scientists) stayed silent at the risk of thousands of victims of crime,” she told Seven News.

The first inquiry headed by Walter Sofronoff KC found many DNA samples went untested and the lab incorrectly ruled others “insufficient”.

The scientist in charge of the lab at the time – Cathie Allen – was sacked in May.

After the first inquiry, it was revealed 37,000 cases dating back to 2007 were impacted by the DNA testing bungle and would need to be reviewed.

“Today’s revelations undermine the foundations of our justice system in Queensland and have vast impacts for victims across our state,” Opposition Leader David Crisafulli said.

Attorney-General Yvette D’Ath said legislation would be introduced next week in parliament to establish a “world-leading” forensic science institute – one of the first inquiry’s many recommendations.

-AAP

Topics: Queensland
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