Walter Sofronoff dressed in court robes walks down a street. in Brisbane
Retired judge Walter Sofronoff led the six-month inquiry.(AAP: Dan Peled)

A report into forensic DNA testing in Queensland has found “serious” failures at a state-run lab, caused by a series of factors including “mismanagement” and “dishonesty by senior managers”.

Key points:

  • Commissioner Walter Sofronoff said the number of criminal cases impacted by “grave maladministration” at the lab “cannot be quantified”
  • Failures include a culture that was “ineffective at allowing scientific disagreement to be ventilated”
  • More than 120 recommendations were made to address “disturbing and troubling” issues

A commission of inquiry was led by former president of the Court of Appeal Walter Sofronoff, who said major issues at the lab persisted for years.

“I have found that serious problems have existed within the laboratory for many years, some of them amounting to grave maladministration involving dishonesty,” he said in the report.

The report also made scathing findings about the lab’s managing scientist, Cathie Allen, including that she lied to her immediate supervisor and to senior police about the work of the lab.

Mr Sofronoff said the impacts of these failures included “a reduced prospect of conviction by a failure to obtain evidence”.

“The failings are serious — the laboratory serves the criminal justice system,” he said.

“I do not doubt that the failure to obtain all of the evidence available from samples has affected some cases.

“In most cases that will have reduced the prospects of conviction by a failure to obtain evidence which could support a complaint.”

But Mr Sofronoff said it was unlikely that the failures could have resulted in a wrong conviction.

“None of the failures I have identified call into question the reliability of a match between a crime scene sample and a person’s reference sample, the most probative evidence which often supports convictions,” he said.

“The number of cases actually affected, and whether with different processes those cases would have resulted in different outcomes, cannot be quantified.”

Lab failures ‘manyfold’

He said a number of different factors contributed to the “manyfold” of failures, including mismanagement, cultural issues and the fact that the lab falls under the Department of Health.

“Some [failures] spring from the location of the laboratory as an appendage of the Department of Health, which is an inapt fit,” he said.

“Others spring from mismanagement and even dishonesty by senior managers.

“Others again from the culture of the laboratory which was ineffective at allowing scientific disagreement to be ventilated.”

The commission of inquiry was announced by the premier earlier this year after Queensland police raised concerns and requested further testing on some samples where the Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services lab (QHFSS) had reported “insufficient DNA for further processing”.

Months of public hearings heard details of document shredding, leadership failures and a “toxic” work environment at the lab spanning years.

At the centre of the inquiry was a controversial decision in 2018 to stop testing DNA samples below a certain threshold and classify them as having “insufficient DNA”.

This was despite the possibility of obtaining a DNA profile with further testing.

Samples classified this way included those related to major crimes, such as rapes and murders.

More than 120 recommendations

A graphic showing a DNA strand and Cathie Allen et al.
The commission heard months of evidence about Queensland’s troubled DNA forensic lab.(ABC News: Lewi Hirvela )

Mr Sofronoff made 123 recommendations in his report, including that Queensland Health appoint a chief executive officer — who is eminent in the field of forensic DNA analysis — to lead reform work for the laboratory.

He also recommended the establishment of an advisory sub-committee containing at least three eminent scientists in the field to give expert guidance and support to the chief executive officer and that a chief operations officer be appointed to lead the administrative management of the laboratory.

Mr Sofronoff recommended the premier, health minister and attorney-general ensure sufficient funding is provided to the relevant agencies so the recommendations can be implemented and “in order to facilitate the rapid restoration of confidence in the criminal justice system”.

He said some recommendations could be enacted quickly while other would take time.

“We’ve found some very, very disturbing and troubling things that were happening at the DNA laboratory that’s the bad news,” he said.

“The good news is that the scientists at the laboratory are people of very high talent, skill and great devotion and dedication to their work.

“We have to change a great deal that’s happening in the laboratory but the Department of Health has already committed to ensuring those changes take place.

“Some of them will take place over a long period, a year or more, but some have to undertaken straight away.”

Mr Sofronoff also recommended that some major crime cases and sexual assault cases dating back as far as 2008 be reviewed to see if samples needed to be retested.

This could impact thousands of cases.

His report recommended within the next year the state government set up a way – likely through a review sub-committee – to retrospectively review cases including:

  • Major crime cases that include a sample or samples reported as “DNA insufficient for further processing” since 2018
  • Major crime cases (including cold cases) received by the lab since January 2012 which did not receive holistic case management
  • Sexual assault cases processed by the laboratory between January 1, 2008, and August 8, 2016, where sperm was not identified on the evidence-recovery slide for a sample and the lab did not perform further testing on the sample

Mr Sofronoff said the samples would be retested in Queensland but testing work could be contracted out to other labs in Australia and New Zealand to help with the caseload.

Sofronoff says Allen’s leadership was lab’s ‘single-biggest problem’

Cathy Allen looking glum as she appears via video link.
The report found lab boss Cathie Allen lied to her supervisor and to senior police about the lab’s work.(Supplied)

Mr Sofronoff said the report made for “horrible reading” due to the “kind of errors” that had been made.

In the report’s foreword Mr Sofronoff noted that in late 2021, before the commission of inquiry had been announced, the lab’s managing scientist Cathie Allen fed the health department and in-turn the premier and Health Minister Yvette D’Ath “misleading information”.

Ms Allen worked as the managing scientist at the lab from 2008.

She, along with the lab’s team leader Justin Howes, were suspended from their roles after an interim report from the inquiry was released in September.

At a press conference, Mr Sofronoff agreed Ms Allen’s leadership was the “single-biggest problem” at the lab over the years, and he agreed that she lied to him and others during the inquiry.

Mr Sofronoff said there would be “consequences for somebody” but made no findings in relation to any action that should be taken.

He said the report would go to the chair of the Queensland Crime and Corruption for consideration.

In the report, Mr Sofronoff said: “Briefed by the department, which had relied upon information provided by the leader of the laboratory, the managing scientist Ms Cathie Allen, the ministers [the premier and health minister] assured the public that all was well at the laboratory.

“They could not have known that Ms Allen had fed them misleading information and that, for a long time, she had actually been lying to her immediate supervisor and to senior police about the work of the laboratory.

“Several scientists employed there had been clamouring for years about a dangerous lack of scientific integrity that they believed was systemic at the laboratory.”

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