I had just received double digits for the Brisbane National Australia Bank robbery when they transferred me into B Block at the Sir David Longland Correctional Centre (SDLCC) - a jail with the fearsome reputation as the killing fields of the Sunshine State. This New Age gladiator school of Queensland’s prison system had spawned a breed of violent younger prisoner the like of which I had never encountered during my years in southern prisons. They were fueled by a mixture of heroin and an insane desire to reach the top of the prison pecking order by killing each other. Their ascendancy was symbolised by the tattooed abbreviation NBK (natural born killer), which reinforced the reality of jail time becoming a terminal sentence inside SDLCC. In that feeding frenzy of reputation building I met Marc Renton.
Marc Andre Renton is no choirboy. A man in his late 20s who had already achieved a career criminal tag for armed robbery, Renton walked the hard yards after he led the 1992 Townsville prison riot in a quest for humane treatment and better conditions for prisoners. It cost him a few busted bones and more years on top of his sentence but it also earned him respect in the yard. It was not a respect fuelled by heroin, jail murders or NBK tattoos, but a healthy respect for a stand-up bloke who would not take shit from the screws or the wannabes.
Older crims took the young Queenslander under their wing. He was a reincarnation from their heyday. A man with principles who cannot be bought or sold with a $50 shot of heroin is rare in today’s maximum-security prisons. They showed their respect. Renton returned that respect by listening to the elder statesmen. He learned from their mistakes and benefited from their wisdom. Now it was his turn to ask for their help and advice.
I was one of the privileged to hear the story of a young man sent to prison for a crime he had not committed. A young man unskilled in the intricacies of a legal system that relied upon forensic scientists and their interpretation of DNA evidence to convict him, Renton simply said he had not committed the bank robbery he was in jail for. And I believe him.
Renton’s introduction to the forensic interpretation of DNA evidence came from the testimony of Kenneth Cox, a forensic scientist at Brisbane’s John Tonge Centre, whose evidence resulted in his conviction and imprisonment for 14 years on April 25, 1997.
Renton was convicted of robbing the Biggera Waters and Paradise Point National Australia Bank branches in mid 1996. He had also been charged with the Morningside bank robbery. Police said distinct similarities existed between the three robberies, consistent with a proposition that one offender had been involved in all three. The establishment of similar-fact evidence linking the Biggera Waters and Paradise Point bank robberies was discredited by Renton’s acquittal of the Morningside robbery. The case then relied on DNA evidence that allegedly linked Renton to the Biggera Waters bank robbery.
Kenneth Cox had originally examined a blue balaclava found inside the stolen white Ford Laser allegedly used in the Biggera Waters robbery in August 1996. During that examination he tested two areas of fabric in an attempt to isolate DNA that could originate from mouth cells via saliva. He found none. Cox testified at Renton’s trial that he had completed a second examination and isolated a stain that yielded a DNA sample.
Although Cox’s second examination on April 17, 1997, two weeks into Renton’s trial, did not correspond with his examination of the blue balaclava eight months earlier, Cox testified that the newly found DNA samples belonged to Renton, Festa and a third unidentified person.
The Crown’s circumstantial case was bolstered by the interpretation of the DNA evidence delivered by Cox. And the timing of its inclusion restricted Renton’s defence counsel from conducting independent tests. The trial judge allowed the DNA evidence to go before the jury untested. As a result, Renton was convicted.
When Renton returned to prison with a 14-year sentence, the Queensland Department of Corrective Services was determined to make him serve every day in the most punitive sections of the State prisons. It was payback for his participation in the 1992 prison riot. Queensland “prisoneaucrats” take their revenge options very seriously and because Renton was not legally or politically connected they acted with impunity. They showed no reluctance to make a man do hard time for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
Renton and I walked the yard inside B Block at SDLCC as I listened to his story. His sincerity had a ring of truth to it. DNA was the stumbling block I could not get my head around. Wasn’t DNA set in concrete - irrefutable proof that tied an offender to a crime? So why would an obviously intelligent young prisoner persist in his claim of being innocent?
I vaguely remembered that an independent examination of forensic evidence cleared Lindy Chamberlain. Renton needed that same independent scientific examination of the DNA evidence used to convict him. In the prison library I found a book that revealed the identity of the scientist who conducted the independent tests in the Chamberlain case. His name was Professor Barry Boettcher.
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