When the February 2005 Belzer report, which criticised flawed DNA testing procedures and recommended an independent audit of Queensland’s John Tonge Centre, was leaked to the Queensland media, it was compounded by another forensic biologist, Kris Bentley. She also trenchantly criticised the management process, inaccurate DNA results and invalidated testing equipment used at the John Tonge Centre when she resigned on March 4, 2005.
Attempts to avert an ongoing scandal and maintain damage control forced the embattled Queensland Minister for Health, Gordon Nuttall, to order an independent review of the quality and management control of crucial DNA testing at Queensland’s John Tonge Centre.
On March 3, 2005 Mr Nuttall told the Queensland media, “I believe the review is in the best interests of the justice system and the people of Queensland”.
Mr Nuttall told the waiting media that an overseas scientific expert from New Zealand's Environmental Science and Research facility (ESR) would review the John Tonge Centre to “clear the air” and would make recommendations “that will enhance the valuable work being currently undertaken” at the Centre. What Mr Nuttall did not tell the media was that the New Zealand ESR had already experienced the same problems as the Centre but with catastrophic results.
ESR's Mt Albert laboratories found themselves at the centre of two high profile cases which serve as textbook examples of what can go wrong in DNA testing laboratories - even those which are fully accredited and meet internationally accepted quality control guidelines.
The Peter Howse case
In 1996 a serial sex offender, Peter Robert Howse, was arrested for the rape of a teenager on the basis of strong evidence which included identification by a witness. Samples taken from Howse and the victim were sent to ESR labs for testing but ESR reported no match and eliminated Howse as a suspect. He was released from custody.
In 1999 Howse was arrested and tested again in connection with at least three further rapes. In the meantime ESR had switched to STR (PCR) testing. The results strongly implicated Howse in the 1996 rape as well as those being investigated. An inquiry ordered by the New Zealand Department of Justice found that ESR had failed to gain a result with the 1996 tests, but laboratory policy had led to “no result” being reported as “no match”.
ESR conceded that “with hindsight” it might have been better if failure to get a result was reported as such, but explained that they adopted a “conservative” approach to reporting in order to give the accused the benefit of any doubt.
The case of "Profile N"
Another forensic blunder at ESR occurred when blood samples from an assault victim in Christchurch were sent to ESR for testing. The result of this test came to be dubbed “Profile N” by the inquiries which were to follow. At the time the Christchurch blood samples were being tested at the ESR facility, Wellington police were investigating two murders.
Operation “Pad” had collected evidence from the crime scene of Bill Fleet’s murder in his home. There were witnesses to the killing and a man had been arrested and charged. Blood stains on a roller door at the murder scene were sampled and sent to ESR for analysis. Operation “Rex” concerned an earlier murder on gang-premises at Porirua. Some weeks later Mr Kuka Tiai was arrested and charged. He immediately confessed, saying he had acted alone. Samples from the crime scene and the deceased were also sent to ESR.
Samples from under the fingernails of the deceased and from spots on a wardrobe at the scene produced a profile which failed to match either Mr Tiai or his victim. Suspecting an accomplice police requested that ESR conduct a search of its database for matching profiles. ESR found two. One was from the roller-door sample taken in Operation “Pad” and the other was “Profile N”, which ESR claimed was likely to occur in only one New Zealander in 930 million.
The Christchurch assault victim was subjected to “extensive police inquiries” for more than three months and his financial records were seized. They established that he had not left Christchurch around the time of the murders. In fact he hardly left Christchurch at all.
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