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The John Tonge Centre, DNA evidence and miscarriages of justice - Part 1

By Bernie Matthews - posted Wednesday, 16 March 2005

“I’ve spent 15 years in prison for something I haven’t done, for something I knew nothing about. I watched my father die in prison for something he didn’t do. He’s innocent, the Maguires are innocent, the Birmingham Six are innocent. Let’s hope they are next.”

These were the anguished words of Gerry Conlon as he walked to freedom from the London Court of Criminal Appeal in 1989. It was the same court building 15 years earlier that had seen Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson (The Guilford Four) sentenced to life imprisonment in one of the gravest miscarriages of justice that ever occurred in Britain.

On Wednesday, February 9, 2005 the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, made an unprecedented public apology to the Conlon family on behalf of the British Government for that miscarriage of justice.


During that historic moment the British PM observed that people could not change the pain of the past in Northern Ireland, or the pain of the victims and their families, but sometimes people could do things that helped to deal with the pain of the present. He said that if it could be done, then it was the decent thing to try and do, and this was how he hoped the apology would be seen.

PM Blair added that the apology should not be viewed through a political spectrum but instead as something that was accomplished to help the families and would clarify once and for all that they were innocent victims of a miscarriage of British justice.

In contrast, Australian miscarriages of justice remain hidden behind official walls of silence or political obfuscation where apologies are non-existent. The degree of ministerial liability, or the prospect of monetary compensation, remain predominant factors that become prioritised before the official time-consuming process begins to determine whether a miscarriage of justice has occurred or not.

In Queensland that degree of liability is also governed by an entrenched sense of “Finchophobia” that permeates all government decisions concerning possible miscarriages of justice in the state.

The “Finchophobic” attitude stems from the 1973 fire-bombing of Brisbane’s Whiskey-Au-Go-Go nightclub in which 15 people died. John Andrew Stuart and James Richard Finch were subsequently arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murders. Stuart allegedly committed suicide in dubious circumstances inside Boggo Road Jail, while Finch maintained for the next 15 years that he was innocent of the crime. His protestations eventually convinced journalists and Queensland politicians that a doubt existed regarding his conviction and he should be released from prison.

In 1988 Finch was released from prison and deported to Britain where he made an internationally televised confession on A Current Affair that he had indeed been involved in the Brisbane firebombing that resulted in the 15 deaths. Finch described how he had gained his freedom by duping the media and the Queensland Government. The televised confession drew international ridicule to Queensland for allowing the self-confessed serial killer to go free but the embarrassment also created an acute sense of “Finchophobia” in the Queensland political arena.


Queensland politicians are acutely aware of the ramifications that can evolve if there is a repetition of the 1988 Finch scenario, and they are not prepared to take that risk, despite the possible innocence of prisoners who are currently serving lengthy terms of incarceration.

On February 12, 2005 the entrenched “Finchophobia” and political obfuscation that governs the determination and time-consuming examination of possible miscarriages of justice inside the Queensland legal system, has been rocked to its foundation by a leaked report condemning Queensland’s main forensic testing laboratory. The report cast doubts over the validity of DNA evidence used in hundreds of Queensland criminal cases. The possibility of miscarried justice has collided with a secret culture of forensic science regularly used by Queensland prosecutors as irrefutable evidence to bolster their cases.

The leaked internal report in which a forensic biologist from Queensland’s major DNA testing laboratory, the John Tonge Centre at Coopers Plains, has exposed flaws in the DNA testing process at the JTC. The February 12, 2005 report compiled by Ms Deanna Belzer also recommends an immediate and independent audit of inconsistent evidence results that have occurred at the JTC during the past 12 months.

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Article edited by Maggie Dunphy.
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This is the first part in a five part series. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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