Forensic institute created to end state’s DNA bungles

Fraser Barton |

Health Minister Shannon Fentiman wants recruiters to look overseas for a forensic institute boss.
Health Minister Shannon Fentiman wants recruiters to look overseas for a forensic institute boss.

A forensic science institute will be created following two inquiries into a beleaguered Queensland DNA lab.

The state parliament passed a bill on Tuesday establishing the institute, to operate under the Department of Justice and Attorney General.

It is recommendation 121 of 123 from the first commission of inquiry into the troubled Forensic and Science Services lab, with 104 now implemented or partially implemented.

Queensland is now the first state in the country with a dedicated statutory framework governing the provision of forensic services.

Potential problems with the lab first came to light as a result of The Australian’s podcast series about the investigation into the brutal slaying of Shandee Blackburn.

The 23-year-old was stabbed more than 20 times on her way home from work in Mackay in 2013. 

The state’s leading DNA lab was then put under the microscope in 2022 following questions raised by the Queensland Police Service about existing DNA thresholds preventing evidence processing.

A lengthy first inquiry, led by Walter Sofronoff KC, found many DNA samples went untested and others were incorrectly ruled insufficient by the lab.

It was revealed 37,000 cases dating back to 2007 were impacted by the DNA testing bungle and would need to be reviewed.

Retired Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett led the second inquiry in 2023, examining an automated DNA extraction method used from 2007 to 2016 known as Project 13.

The inquiry found the automated method yielded up to 92 per cent less DNA than the manual technique.

More than 100,000 samples may need to be re-tested after the second inquiry and with 37,000 cases already under review, the backlog could take three years to clear. 

Health Minister Shannon Fentiman told parliament on Tuesday the government has since committed almost $200 million to reforming forensic services and providing support to those affected by the commission of inquiry.

“The bill ensures the principles of quality, reliability, impartiality and independence are at the forefront of forensic services delivery both now and into the future,” Ms Fentiman said. 

She said the bill also recognises that forensic service delivery cannot occur in a vacuum.

“A range of perspectives, including victims’ voices, are required to be represented on the Forensic Science Queensland Advisory Council.”

It is expected the forensic institute will be administratively assigned to the justice department by mid-2024. 

The health minister said it is important a highly qualified director and a diverse expert advisory council are appointed, with the department set to look internationally for candidates. 

Opposition MP Deb Frecklington said the failures of the DNA lab mark one of the most significant cases of maladministration in living memory.

“It has fundamentally shaken the foundations of the criminal justice system with long-term ramifications still largely unknown,” she said.