Second inquiry launched into Qld forensic testing

Friday, 06 October, 2023

Second inquiry launched into Qld forensic testing

The Palaszczuk government yesterday announced a new independent Commission of Inquiry into Forensic DNA Testing in Queensland. Led by Dr Annabelle Bennett AC, a retired Judge of the Federal Court of Australia and former president of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences, the new inquiry will examine concerns that have been raised following the conclusion of last year’s inquiry.

The 2022 inquiry, which was conducted by Commissioner Walter Sofronoff KC, was sparked by concerns about the DNA testing thresholds used by Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services between February 2018 and June 2022, which saw Forensic and Scientific Services (FSS) scientists provide misleading information regarding the detection of DNA in some sworn witness statements. Due to the possibility that additional processing of DNA samples could lead to partial or full DNA being detected in some cases, statements issued stating “DNA insufficient for further processing” or “no DNA detected” were not deemed to be factually correct.

The new inquiry will review recent public statements and other documents in relation to an automated DNA extraction method that was introduced in October 2007 under what is known as Project 13. It will also assess whether the recommendations from the previous inquiry are sufficient to address this matter.

A report by seven scientists into Project 13, dated August 2008, recommended the use of the automated extraction method, saying data indicated the results were comparable with manual extraction by scientists. But documents submitted to the Sofronoff inquiry showed the robotic method was in fact recovering far less DNA.

As part of the new inquiry, Commissioner Bennett will be able to interview any or all experts whose advice about DNA extraction methods as they relate to Project 13 helped inform the initial Commission of Inquiry’s findings and recommendations. The Commissioner’s final report and recommendations will be completed by 17 November.

Forensic Science Queensland has already committed to reviewing serious crime cases and associated samples back to 2007, with the flexibility to go further back if required. A retrospective review of the automated method of DNA extraction was also a recommendation in the 2022 Commission of Inquiry, and includes samples affected under Project 13.

Significant progress has reportedly been made so far on the delivery of recommendations from last year’s Commission of Inquiry, with 34 recommendations having been completed and a further 68 being underway — equating to almost 83% of all recommendations. Approximately 7000 additional serious crime and sexual assault cases will be reviewed as a result of the insufficient automated DNA extraction methods, bringing the total number of cases to be reviewed to about 37,000.

“The original Commission of Inquiry already recommended a number of reviews of DNA processes and sample cohorts, which the Queensland Government supports,” said Queensland Minister for Health Shannon Fentiman.

“This new inquiry will ensure a transparent and comprehensive review of matters raised after the original inquiry and is in line with the Queensland Government’s commitment to rebuilding the state’s forensic and DNA testing processes.

“We have already seen some very promising results since last year’s inquiry, and this second inquiry looking specifically at Project 13 will ensure that the public can have full confidence in our state’s forensic services.”

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