Report released into Qld's "flawed" DNA extraction method

By Lauren Davis
Tuesday, 21 November, 2023

Report released into Qld's "flawed" DNA extraction method

The Queensland Government has accepted the recommendations outlined in the final report of the Commission of Inquiry to Examine DNA Project 13 Concerns, which was submitted on 17 November.

The Commission of Inquiry found that Project 13, which introduced automated DNA extraction methods to the Queensland Health forensics laboratory, was a “fatally flawed” project — with scientifically sound methodologies sacrificed for speed while the laboratory was under pressure to accelerate DNA processing — when it was introduced in October 2007. In addition, Minister for Health, Mental Health and Ambulance Services Shannon Fentiman said it was clear that the “culture, governance and work in the laboratory over the previous 16 years was lacking”.

A report by seven scientists, dated August 2008, recommended the use of the automated extraction method, saying data indicated the results were comparable with manual extraction by scientists — when the robotic method was in fact recovering far less DNA, as confirmed by a 2022 Commission of Inquiry. That inquiry recommended a retrospective review of the extraction method, including samples affected under Project 13; the Queensland Government has so far committed almost $200 million to implementing the 123 recommendations of the original inquiry. A second inquiry was announced in order to review public statements and other documents in relation to Project 13, and to assess whether the recommendations from the previous inquiry were sufficient.

The second inquiry has since found that forensic scientist Dr Linzi Wilson-Wilde, whose expert advice about DNA extraction methods helped to inform the initial Commission of Inquiry’s findings and recommendations, did not draw attention to the deficiencies of Project 13 in a way that conveyed the importance of the fact there were major inadequacies with DNA yield from the extraction process; that said, there was no evidence to indicate that Wilson-Wilde deliberately misled the first inquiry. The inquiry also found that Wilson-Wilde, who was appointed CEO of Forensic Science Queensland (FSQ) in January this year, was making good progress on implementing the recommendations from the first inquiry, including major changes to culture and work practices.

The latest recommendations relate to retesting up to 103,187 casework samples that were previously tested using the flawed Project 13 methodology between 2007 and 2016. Given that it could take up to three years to retest all these samples, the existing ‘legal-led review’ process will determine which cases need their samples retested, and the priority order. The process will be rolled into FSQ’s existing program of work implementing the first inquiry’s recommendations.

Given the findings of both inquiries, amendments to the rules around the disposal of samples in the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000 will be considered by parliament next week. Currently, samples taken from a suspect in an indictable offence are to be destroyed after a year if proceedings have not been brought against the person in that time. The amendments will extend that time period to three years to ensure testing can be conducted. Additionally, some historical records which were not destroyed by the laboratory in line with the one-year disposal schedule will have three years to be reviewed.

A bill will also be introduced into parliament next week to give effect to recommendation 121 of the First Commission of Inquiry, to establish the position of director of FSQ and the supporting FSQ agency; the interim FSQ and interim advisory board were created administratively within Queensland Health following the First Commission of Inquiry. The bill will allow formal establishment of FSQ within the justice portfolio, which is expected to be in place by July 2024, with the government taking steps to ensure the laboratory has the resources necessary to fulfil its obligations and restore public confidence in its operations.

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