Over 100,000 DNA samples require re-examination following the discovery of fundamental flaws in an Australian state-run forensic laboratory.
A second inquiry into the Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services laboratory in Australia unveiled significant failings in the DNA extraction process from forensic samples between 2007 and 2016. The inquiry found Project 13, an automated DNA extraction initiative intended to tackle sample processing backlogs, was implemented without thorough scientific validation. It resulted in inadequately processed samples, with DNA yields up to 92 percent lower compared to the original manual method. This led to many samples being deemed 'insufficient' for testing. The inquiry has mandated a review and re-testing of 103,187 samples.
'I want Queenslanders to know, we are focused on the future and re-testing previous samples where required…' said Shannon Fentiman, the minister for health, mental health and ambulance services of the Queensland Parliament. 'Queenslanders can be assured the Queensland Government is committed to improving standards, as are the leadership and staff of the laboratory.'
After the initial inquiry, held in 2022, the Queensland Government committed $200 million to address recommendations aimed at improving the culture, management and working standards in the laboratory. Dr Linzi Wilson-Wilder assumed the role of CEO after thousands of criminal samples were found to be compromised in the 2022 inquiry, to which she gave evidence as director of the laboratory. Despite receiving praise for progress in transforming lab culture and work practice, and executing most recommendations, the second inquiry revealed failures in Project 13 that Dr Wilson-Wilder had not disclosed previously.
The second inquiry concluded that the inadequacies were not the fault of any individual; instead Fentiman attributed them to an 'overall lack of governance'. It has been reported that a 'legal-led review' process will prioritise cases for sample re-testing. Approximately 37,000 criminal cases, including murders and sexual assaults, require retrospective review.
'The importance of sound forensic evidence in the administration of criminal justice cannot be understated. For a victim of crime and their families, it can be the difference between a perpetrator being brought to justice for their actions, or not', said Yvette D'Ath, attorney-general and minister for justice and minister for the prevention of domestic and family violence of the Queensland Parliament.
In response to the inquiry findings, amendments to the disposal rules in the Police Powers and Responsibility Act 2000 are underway. It was announced that Queensland Parliament is expected to approve extending the retention period for samples from one to three years, if no legal proceedings have commenced against the individual.
Some of the extensive re-testing was outsourced to New Zealand and the UK. It is anticipated to take up to three years to resolve the substantial backlog.