Inquiry into Queensland’s forensic DNA lab that unearthed ‘bin-gate’, leadership failures and a ‘toxic’ workplace resumes today

An inquiry into Queensland’s forensic DNA lab that has so far revealed details of document shredding, leadership failures and a toxic work environment is due to kick-off again today.

The Commission of Inquiry into Queensland’s forensic DNA lab will resume public hearings for two more days, with its final report due within weeks.

So far, the inquiry’s hearings have probed the workplace culture of Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services lab, concerns about scientific process, and the 2018 decision not to test crime scene samples that didn’t meet a certain threshold.

What will the inquiry focus on this week?

This week’s hearings will consider the murder of Mackay woman Shandee Blackburn in 2013.

Shandee Blackburn was murdered in Mackay in February 2013
Shandee Blackburn died after being stabbed multiple times as she walked home from work. A coronial investigation into her death was reopened this year.(Facebook, supplied by family)

An investigation into the cold case by the Australian newspaper podcast “Shandee’s Story” first revealed allegations about problems with Queensland’s forensic testing.

At the centre of the inquiry’s probe was the 2018 decision to classify DNA samples that fell below a certain threshold as “DNA Insufficient for Further Processing”, or DIFP.

Samples classified this way included samples related to major crimes like rapes and murders.

Additional testing has since successfully detected DNA in many samples that were re-worked.

The Queensland Police Service — the laboratory’s major client — agreed to the threshold when it was proposed to them in an options paper in 2018.

The inquiry heard from an internationally-renowned forensics expert, Dr Bruce Budowle, who believed the paper wasn’t “neutral” and was biased to downgrade the success rate of samples in that range.

Inspector David Neville, the head of the police’s DNA Management Unit, told the inquiry he repeatedly raised concerns about the threshold from late last year with the lab’s managing scientist, Cathie Allen — but said his concerns were rejected.

Scientists said they raised concerns about testing process 

Senior forensic scientist Kylie Rika is seen leaving the Commission of Inquiry into Forensic DNA Testing in Queensland
Senior forensic scientist Kylie Rika described a “toxic” work environment.(AAP: Darren England)

One scientist said she repeatedly raised concerns after becoming worried that sexual assault swabs were being categorised as DIFP when sperm could be seen under the microscope — an obvious sign male DNA was present.

Senior scientist Kylie Rika told the inquiry she had a “sickening feeling” working at the lab, saying she’d raised concerns as far back as 2018, but was ignored in a “toxic” work environment.

The inquiry also heard about concerns over the testing of bone and teeth samples and the validation of scientific equipment.

A common thread of scientists’ evidence was the workplace culture, and their frustration that nothing seemed to happen when they raised concerns.

Described as a ‘toxic’, the inquiry heard about a lack of trust in the workplace

Two independent scientists told the hearings the lab staff had “divided allegiances and a lack of trust“.

Cathy Allen looking glum as she appears via video link.
Team manager of the forensics lab at Queensland’s Forensic and Scientific Services, Cathie Allen, said she felt like she was made out to be a Disney villain. (Supplied)

The inquiry heard variously about an incident dubbed “bin-gate” (involving a confidential documents bin), and the affectionate nickname “the FRIT f***ers” [referring to the forensic reporting and intelligence team] some scientists adopted after allegedly hearing the managing scientist Cathie Allen refer to them as “those f***ers over there” — a claim she denied under questioning from her lawyer Matthew Hickey.

The inquiry also heard Ms Allen wanted to know which staff members were trying to get pregnant.

For her part, over several gruelling days of evidence, Ms Allen told the inquiry she felt she’d been made out to be a “Disney villain“.

She said there had been funding pressure on the DNA forensic analysis lab and “trying to do more with less is really difficult”.

Justin Howes, team leader at Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services, walks into court wearing sunglasses
Justin Howes is a team leader at Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services.(AAP: Darren England)

Team leader Justin Howes was also grilled over what counsel assisting Michael Hodge KC described as a “complete failure of duty and responsibility” to respond to the concerns over DNA testing.

Mr Howes told the inquiry that “with the benefit of hindsight”, he agreed.

A senior Queensland Health Manager, Lara Keller, who has only been in her role since late last year, admitted she didn’t understand the police concerns about DNA testing when they were first raised with her — and she did not seek to inform herself about them, instead relying on other staff to address the concerns.

This week the focus will turn to Shandee Blackburn

Vicki Blackburn stands on her balcony overlooking Mackay.
Vicki Blackburn, the mother of Shandee Blackburn, said what was uncovered in the interim report didn’t “sound real”.(ABC Tropical North: Hannah Walsh)

Shandee’s mother, Vicki Blackburn, has attended part of the hearings in person.

Speaking outside court on the inquiry’s first day, she told media she believed there was a “lot more to come”.

Thursday and Friday’s hearings will involve evidence from independent forensic scientists.

Commissioner Walter Sofronoff KC is due to deliver a final report on December 13.

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