DNA lab staff raised concern about testing change, inquiry hears

Senior staff within Queensland’s state-run DNA lab raised internal concerns about a move to stop automatically testing some samples in more detail as part of a “trade off” between wait times for the results and their benefit to police.

The details, from the first public hearing of a powerful commission of inquiry into the lab, follow an interim report last week described as opening a “Pandora’s box” for the state’s criminal justice system.

Commissioner Walter Sofronoff KC’s report found that a 2018 change to lab processes for major crime cases ultimately resulted in expert witness statements given to police and courts being “untrue” or “misleading” about the ability to gain more detail from DNA samples.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Michael Hodge KC, told the first day of a set of hearings expected to run throughout this week about an email from members of the Forensic and Scientific Services lab’s management group. The email concerns raised about the 2018 decision and the short time for consultation.

Counsel Assisting Michael Hodge KC during the first public hearing of the Commission of Inquiry into Forensic DNA Testing in Queensland on Monday.

Counsel Assisting Michael Hodge KC during the first public hearing of the Commission of Inquiry into Forensic DNA Testing in Queensland on Monday.

Hodge said an internal report into the proposed changes to lift the threshold for automatically testing some samples in more detail had been circulated by team leader Justin Howes in January that year seeking feedback within 24 hours.

Two members of the management group, which usually signs off on all changes to be processed, wrote back, taking issue with the suggestion there was “menial value” in continuing to test all samples to a higher level and urgency of consultation.

Three days later, the decision was made to change the report into a paper outlining options for the Queensland Police Service to consider, despite the sign-off from the management group as standard practice, Hodge told the inquiry in his opening statement.

Hodge said this appeared to be a case where the usual process was “abandoned” and there was some “curiosity” about why this path was taken. But the eventual decision to proceed with the change involved a “trade off” for police between test turnaround times and the likelihood of a valuable result.

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