Monday, March 7, 2005

Fresh swipe at DNA labs

ANOTHER leaked document from a quitting scientist at the troubled forensic laboratories at the John Tonge Centre slams management and processes.

Scientist Kris Bentley, whose departure yesterday follows that of forensic biologist Deanna Belzer after concerns about "inaccurate" DNA results and unvalidated equipment, issued a scathing resignation letter leaked to The Courier-Mail.

She described a "highly political climate of disharmony and divisiveness" and said concerns over inadequate staff training and new instrument validations were being brushed aside.

She said the concerns had been vindicated by the resultant excessive rate of sample retesting with massive "blowouts" in the turnaround times of major crime cases and quality assurance concerns.

Ongoing "panic management" was disrupting already-overstressed staff while scientific prowess was being downgraded "in favour of management skills".

Health Minister Gordon Nuttall has ordered a review of the management and scientific processes at the centre.

A spokesperson said Ms Bentley was a "very well respected forensic biologist".

A scientist's report leaked to this week was criticised by Griffith University's Forensic Studies director, Associate Professor Dennis Burns, who said there was no scientific basis for claims of flawed DNA profiling in criminal cases.

Professor Burns, who said he was more experienced than the author of the report, rejected concerns that the process described as flawed could call into question the evidence in court cases.

"The quality of a forensic DNA profile produced from a sample does not depend on an exact determination of the amount of DNA to be used in the analysis," Professor Burns said.

"While a narrow range of DNA amounts works best for optimal results, it does not follow that the alleged inaccuracies in DNA quantitation, even if true, will compromise the quality of the DNA evidence obtained."

Courier Mail: Confidence in forensic tests fundamental Editorial:

BY WHATEVER measure, confidence in the integrity of DNA tests at Queensland Health's forensic laboratories, at the John Tonge Centre, and appropriate management of the centre's huge backlog has fallen well short of community standards.

It is not only the publication this week of an internal report highlighting inconsistent evidence results and unreliable testing processes which has raised serious concerns.

The resourcing of the centre and its ability to overcome the log jam hampering the work of police and the courts has been high on the complaints list for much of the Beattie Government's period in office.

The proposed review announced by Health Minister Gordon Nuttall this week only days after Queensland Health defended the system is welcome.

However, it must also be recognised as a tick for an effective campaign by the Opposition, which has been consistent in highlighting management issues at the centre.

Mr Nuttall acknowledges a climate of uncertainty has settled on the centre and says an expert from New Zealand's Environmental Science and Research facility will provide an independent review of scientific processes and management.

It is essential, however, that scientific staff have confidence that the review will examine not only the processes but whether the system on which Queensland relies is in fact the best and most appropriate for the state.

Queensland Health concedes that it does not have the cutting-edge technology often needed to determine forensic qualities necessary for a police investigation and routinely sends samples interstate.

Even putting aside the possibility that courts could raise the question of whether there was the potential for samples sent south and out of the control of the John Tonge Centre to be compromised, Queenslanders will question - as the Opposition has - the Government's resourcing priorities.

Is that a question open to the independent inquiry to comment upon? It is fundamental to the process of justice for both victims of crime and those accused of an offence that the forensic evidence on which so many outcomes rely is accurate, reliable and provided quickly.

Yet last year it was revealed that a backlog of 11,000 samples had grown to 13,995, despite a $5 million funding injection, and subjective judgments were being made to ensure work on "major crimes" was treated as a priority.

Some samples probably will never be tested. In last year's election campaign, the Government promised $11 million additional funding over three years to speed up DNA profiling.

It promised a $2.6 million link to the national DNA database and legislated to require DNA samples to be taken from all serious offenders in Queensland jails to help police in their work.

Now it must ensure that the fundamental processes and equipment at the centre can guarantee the integrity of forensic tests as well as face up to the appalling backlog by examining staffing levels, management, morale and resources at the centre.

Forensic test review ordered
Hedley Thomas 04mar05

A SWEEPING independent review of the quality and management of crucial DNA work at the State Government's troubled forensic laboratories was ordered yesterday amid fears of a walkout by scientists.

Health Minister Gordon Nuttall said late yesterday that an overseas expert would review the John Tonge Centre in Brisbane to "clear the air".

Mr Nuttall said that a scientist from New Zealand's Environmental Science and Research facility would make recommendations "that will enhance the valuable work being currently undertaken".

In an internal report leaked to The Courier-Mail this week, forensic biologist Deanna Belzer said she feared that she and other scientists were breaking the law by falsely declaring that DNA evidence was accurate.

Her report stated that a tool in the DNA measuring process had been proved to be inaccurate despite being used since last April. The concerns of scientists struggling with a huge backlog of samples at John Tonge throw into doubt evidence in hundreds of criminal cases.

Queensland Health initially played down the concerns but other scientists at the centre have now held talks with management and planned to down microscopes until the problems were resolved.

A number of scientists were angry that Ms Belzer's professionalism and her report were called into question in a closed-door meeting with state manager Peter Lewis-Hughes.

At the meeting Ms Belzer, who had begun a PhD with the Queensland Institute of Medical Research before going to John Tonge, was described by management as disgruntled.

"Queensland Health managers regard themselves as gods - and they always shoot messengers if they don't like the message," a scientist at John Tonge said. A Queensland Health spokesman said last night he was unaware of any proposed industrial action.

Mr Nuttall said a climate of uncertainty had been created and... "it is important for us to reassure the public that they can have faith in forensic sciences".

Mr Nuttall and Premier Peter Beattie previously had pledged to fix fundamental problems at John Tonge by spending more money on staff and equipment.

"I believe the review is in the best interests of the justice system and the people of Queensland,"

Mr Nuttall said. Tiny amounts of DNA are extracted from crime scenes by scientists and technicians at John Tonge who compare them with the DNA of suspected rapists and killers.

Ms Belzer's leaked report stated guidelines had clearly been breached when "a critical instrument in the DNA analysis procedure has not been validated and, further, proven to be inaccurate.

"I question if we are breaching the Justice Act when we sign statements which declare all information in the foregoing pages are accurate to the best of the scientists' knowledge," she wrote.

DNA evidence at risk of unravelling
Phil Bartsch and Greg Stolz 04mar05

A CONVICTED armed robber's application for a royal pardon because of alleged faults with DNA evidence could be the first of many calls for clemency from people jailed in Queensland based on flawed scientific evidence, it was claimed this week.

Several high-profile lawyers said that as a result of allegedly inaccurate testing of human DNA at the troubled John Tonge Centre in Brisbane, "many injustices may have already occurred".

The claim follows revelations in The Courier-Mail from a leaked document exposing "inconsistent" evidence results and concerns of centre staff that the strict regulations of Australia's peak scientific testing body NATA had been breached.

"DNA is a very precise and expert science. Judges and barristers and juries don't know anything about DNA,"

Gold Coast barrister Sean Cousins said. "So when an expert tells you 'X, Y and Z' you just accept it.

But what we're now discovering is that errors are being made."

Premier Peter Beattie said he had been assured the testing process was not compromised, that the equipment had been extensively tested and validated and the facility was subject to regular inspections by NATA.

Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson also backed Police Forensic Services Laboratory director Superintendent Paul Stewart.

"He has absolute confidence in the quality of the testing regime at the John Tonge Centre and that's good enough for me,"

Mr Atkinson said. However one of Mr Cousins' clients, Marc Renton, has claimed for the past eight years that he had been convicted of two armed robberies based on flawed DNA evidence from the John Tonge Centre.

Renton was jailed for 14 years in April 1997 for what were dubbed the "Bonnie and Clyde Robberies" - a series of armed hold-ups he allegedly committed in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast with a female accomplice.

The backlog at John Tonge has also led to a huge backlog in lower-priority cases. Desmond Caling, of Sunnybank in Brisbane, said after 10 months he was still waiting for DNA testing which could nab thieves who broke into his house and stole $50,000 in cash and jewellery.

Police found a stolen car with some of his property dumped at Redbank Plains in Ipswich, but the trail went cold until a neighbour found a bag in a nearby park with more of Mr Caling's property in it.

"There was a bloodied bandage which we took to police to see if it could be DNA-tested," he said.

"We were told it would take five months before they heard anything back because (John Tonge) had to prioritise murders and rapes first."

Gold Coast lawyer Chris Nyst said potential flaws in DNA testing had long been a concern.

Mr Nyst, a founding member of the Innocence Project which works to free wrongly convicted prisoners from state jails, said the centre had been "surprisingly reluctant" to provide DNA samples.

From: Alison Walsh, Springwood NSW Comment:

Re Hedley's 'Forensic Lab review' story.

It amazes me that a review of this type, which is many years overdue, is to be done by an 'overseas expert'. Is this a ploy to keep the whole matter quiet within Australia?

We have an abundant supply of internationally renowned scientists here.

Is the QLD Government too parochial to accept help readily at hand?

Other states would have to speak for themselves, however, in NSW, Dr Brian McDonald or Prof Barry Boettcher are much closer and amply qualified for this task.

Professor Boettcher has offered to assist the Attorney General, the Premier and the Governor of Qld understand the errors made (at the John Tonge Centre) in the Wayne Butler case.

He has received no feedback re this offer. Why?

We know we have one innocent man in prison because of mistakes made: given the contents of Ms Belzers' leaked report, there are likely to be more.

I would venture to guess that a complete whitewash will be the outcome of this review, if indeed it ever takes place. Come on, Mr Welford, have the courage to do the right thing, and quickly.

Subject: Forensic test review ordered :
04mar05 From: Lincoln Hudson,

Brisbane Comment: Regarding the accuracy or otherwise of DNA evidence at a crime scene, did anyone else see the ABC program recently that showed how easy it is to frame someone else with DNA evidence?

All that you need is a DNA sample from the person that you want to frame, for example a piece of hair taken from their jacket collar.

Then in a process thats said to be easier than brewing up a batch of ecstasy, you replicate the DNA from the sample so that you end up with lots of it (and we know that this will be relatively easy given the numbers of garage drug labs around).

Put the brew in a spray bottle, and at your crime scene, spray every surface that you might have put some of your own DNA on (even blood stains).

The police come along and take samples, and all they can see in their testing is the DNA that you brewed up from the person you wish to frame. Because the police and the legal profession have minimal understanding of the technology, they are reluctant to question its accuracy, and treat the DNA evidence as faultless.

The recipe for the perfect crime perhaps?

DNA test doubts Hedley
Thomas 01mar05

A LEAKED document exposing flaws in the testing of human DNA at the troubled John Tonge Centre in Brisbane has thrown into doubt the evidence in hundreds of criminal cases.

Scientists at the centre fear they are breaking the law by falsely declaring in evidentiary certificates that accurate results are being produced and that the equipment is reliable.

The centre's scientists and technicians extract tiny amounts of DNA from crime scenes and compare them with the DNA of suspected rapists and killers.

But officials have expressed concern that the strict regulations of Australia's peak scientific testing body NATA, which can strip the centre's accreditation, have been breached.

In an internal report, forensic biologist Deanna Belzer recommended a major independent audit of "inconsistent" evidence results for the past 12 months as well as the testing process.

The concerns follow pledges by Premier Peter Beattie and Health Minister Gordon Nuttall that the centre would be fixed with more funding and staff to cope with a huge backlog.

People accused of serious violent crimes have been convicted and sentenced on the strength of compelling evidence from the centre, which was promised an extra $11 million in funding plus extra scientists and equipment.

In her internal report dated February 12, Ms Belzer wrote of "repeated suspicions and concerns of staff" regarding the accuracy of a fundamental process in the testing of DNA.

Her report states that a study presented to staff on January 5 had vindicated scientists concerned about the accuracy of the testing process, known as quantitation.

"Clearly, NATA guidelines in this instance have been breached when a critical instrument in the DNA analysis procedure has not been validated and, further, proven to be inaccurate.

"I question if we are breaching the Justice Act when we sign statements which declare all information in the foregoing pages are accurate to the best of the scientists' knowledge."

A Brisbane-based forensic analysis expert consulted by The Courier-Mail yesterday, Carol Mayne, said the internal report was of serious concern and should prompt a top-down review at the centre.

She had previously studied Ms Belzer's scientific work and found it highly professional.

Ms Belzer wrote that the use of the testing kit since April last year before it was validated had led to "an overwhelmingly high financial cost and an inefficiency in reporting results within reasonable turnaround times".

Sources close to the John Tonge Centre said Ms Belzer's decision to resign last week was influenced by her concerns.

She has refused to comment. Queensland Health described the testing system as "non-essential" and said it had no bearing on the DNA profile or result.

A statement did not address concerns whether the Evidence Act was being breached or whether results were being found to be "inaccurate".

"The equipment was introduced to save money and time in processing crime scene samples," the statement said.

Senior police have been alerted to the concerns and sought further details.

A statement said Police Forensic Services Laboratory director Superintendent Paul Stewart had "every confidence in the procedures".

Under the Evidence Act, a DNA analyst must produce an evidentiary certificate for any sample used in criminal proceedings.

The certificate confirms "that the records indicate that all quality assurance procedures for the receipt, storage and testing" of the evidence were followed.

It also confirms that the equipment used is taken to give accurate results.

The National Association of Testing Authorities had not been forwarded the report by Ms Belzer nor heard the concerns of staff over the testing process, sources said.

By Hedley Thomas and Renee Viellaris posted 7 March 05


DNA leads 'CSI' cold-case squad to first arrest?
Frozen case? I don't really know what to say about them until they come up with their case. They say it involves DNA evidence but that's the only stuff we know.

Criminal's DNA filed under relative's name
The New South Wales Opposition is calling for an investigation into claims that police have entered DNA data for serious offenders under incorrect names.

DNA fingerprinting 'no longer foolproof'...
The genetic profiles held by police for criminal investigations are not sophisticated enough to prevent false identifications, according to the father of DNA fingerprinting.

PROFESSOR BARRY BOETTCHER: Now, there should be a law enacted within Queensland so that when cases come up like this they can be brought to attention and if an appropriate authority such as a judge of your Supreme Court considers that it merits further inquiry, an inquiry be ordered.

'Rape' officer clears his name
UK: A former policeman has been cleared of rape after protesting his innocence for 15 years. Judges at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh ruled that Brian Kelly, 47, had suffered a miscarriage of justice over crucial DNA evidence.

New unit investigates unsolved deaths?
A new police unit has been established to investigate more than 360 unsolved deaths in New South Wales, with many of the deaths dating back more than 30 years.

Prisoner's bid for review denied
Prisoner Roger Cheney has lost a Supreme Court action to have a judicial review of his 1993 convictions an 30-year jail sentence. Justice Shaw said he was concerned about the prisoner's claim that DNA evidence held by the police could prove his innocence. Although Cheney had requested the results of the DNA tests, he had been denied access to the forensic analysis.

QLD Prisoners DNA Bid THE curious case of Queensland's "cat lady" murder is set to test the state's legal authorities again, with the man convicted of the killing asking the Attorney-General to take the unprecedented step of releasing blood samples for DNA retesting.

Database clears up crimes?
NSW Police Minister John Watkins said at the launch of a Sydney conference of international forensic experts meeting to mark 100 years of fingerprinting in NSW. He said the collection of DNA from prisoners and suspects in NSW during the past two years had led to more than 5,400 matches on the forensic database.

A Question of Innocence
Katrina Bolton: The promise of DNA freeing the innocent as well as convicting the guilty has been repeated by politicians across Australia, usually while DNA laws are being expanded. The promise was made as a national DNA database, ‘Crimtrac’ was created, and it was made as NSW introduced legislation giving unprecedented powers to take DNA samples from prisoners, by force if necessary.

Weak Carr Government suspends Innocence Panel
It's a callous disregard for justice! The panel takes applications from convicted prisoners for DNA evidence to be analysed a move that may help in a future court appeal.

JUST BEAT IT! Govt lauds crime-solving technology?
The New South Wales Government says advances in crime solving technology are helping the progress of hundreds of police investigations.

DNA testing causes debate in murder case
The use of voluntary DNA testing in the investigation of a murder case in New South Wales has been applauded by victim support groups who are ill informed about the process said Justice Action's spokesperson Gregory Kable.

Abolition of double jeopardy law a political stunt: NSW Opp
Why draconian laws? What about the re-trial by media that goes along with it? Twice shy?

The NSW government has finally appointed somebody (Justice John Nader) to head up its Innocence Panel and has produced leaflets and forms for people convicted of serious crimes (eg murder) to apply for DNA testing if they believe it may help prove their innocence. You can get the info by phoning 1300 881 717 or writing to the panel at GPO Box 45 Sydney NSW 2001.

Is the Westminster System flawed?
Most people would say Lady Di got the boot and NSW has so much trouble getting the Innocence Panel moving. I said hey, what's going on!

Murder charge first for DNA data bank link, but not the same as solving the murder Mass DNA testing of prisoners has led to the first NSW case of a person being charged with a previously unsolved murder as a result of a controversial gene-matching data bank. The Herald reported 25 Nov 02 "a DNA saliva swab led to the charging of a former prisoner with the bashing murder of a woman. Police had been unable to find any witnesses or suspects following the murder in Sydney's inner city two years ago. Detectives had admitted they faced a tough job finding the killer."

Prisoners can prove innocence for $20
Les Kennedy Daily Telegraph reported today that" Prisoners who believe that DNA will prove they were wrongly convicted will have the chance to prove their innocence for a mere $20 administration fee. The move comes 20 months after NSW inmates were asked to provide DNA for comparison with a databank of DNA from unsolved crime scenes for possible convictions.

DNA yours or mine?
Now they have isolated two genes that they say tells you if you're more likely to be depressed. What does that mean? It could mean that you should stay in jail because you are more likely than not to continue your offending behaviour according to a Department of Corrective Services Forensic Psychiatrist.

DNA = Do Not Assume - DNA Controversies!
The national DNA database of all known offenders proposed by Prime Minister Tony Blair could mean that innocent people will be accused of crimes they did not commit.

DNA Evidence of Bipartisanship
Last week the U.S. Congress passed the Justice for All Act, which includes provisions of the Innocence Protection Act. As of this posting, the legislation has not yet been signed by President Bush. Attached is an analysis of the legislation prepared by the Justice Project.

Here come de Judge - Time to Leave [266]
There have always been examples of rulings and interpretations that have supported the saying "The law is an ass". This is increasingly the case, because even the best intentioned judges are now facing an avalanche of new technologies and social change. But, it is no good making excuses for the judiciary and continuing to accept their strange interpretations. We must recognise that not only judges but the whole legal system will struggle more and more. In the end the whole system will become a farce. This is the way empires end.

2nd Renaissance -15 The Rabbits And The Wolves [180]
Historically, there have been periods when legal distinctions between animals and humans have been blurred. For instance, in medieval Europe, in the 14th and 15th centuries, numerous trials and executions of animals occurred. One source identifies 34 recorded instances of pigs having been tried and cruelly put to death. Besides pigs; rats, chickens, goats, and bees were similarly tried. Some of the pigs were fully dressed in human clothes at the time they were, inevitably, found guilty. In one case a vicar excommunicated a flock of sparrows that infested his church. All this happened despite the theological stance that animals had no soul, and no morals or conscience. They could not really be guilty of transgressing the Rule of Law.