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The John Tonge Centre, DNA evidence and miscarriages of justice - Part 2

By Bernie Matthews - posted Thursday, 17 March 2005

When the ABC-TV Catalyst program began to examine the interpretation of DNA evidence used in Australian criminal trials it discovered major discrepancies in the DNA evidence used to convict Marc Andre Renton in Queensland. Catalyst researcher, Robyn Smith, made a formal request to interview Renton in the maximum-security block of Townsville prison after he had been transferred there in 2000. Smith recalled:

Renton was convicted primarily on the DNA evidence. Renowned forensic scientist Professor Barry Boettcher later investigated that evidence and felt that the interpretation by the Queensland forensic scientist was flawed, and there was a good chance that Renton had been wrongfully convicted. We were featuring Renton’s case in our June 27, 2002 program. We wanted to do an interview with him but we were denied access.

Queensland Department of Corrective Services (QDCS) relied upon current legislation that restricted media access to Queensland prisons and its prisoners and refused permission on the grounds that Renton was a convicted bank robber.


The Catalyst program was undeterred by the refusal of Queensland’s “prison-eaucracy” and went ahead with their investigation of the scientific interpretation of DNA evidence used to convict Renton. When the controversial program “A Shadow of Doubt” went to air on June 27, 2002 Catalyst presenter, Karina Kelly, interviewed both Boettcher and Cox to reveal a chilling insight into how the interpretation of scientific evidence can be tilted to favour the prosecution.

Professor Boettcher explained there were four peaks of DNA in the forensic analysis that was presented during the Renton trial. Those peaks were best interpreted as DNA coming from two people and excluded Renton because his DNA was not present. The evidence presented in court assumed the four peaks came from three people because that interpretation favoured the prosecution case against Renton.

Cox was asked why he had concluded there were three people present in the DNA profile but he denied that he came to that scientifically incorrect conclusion. Karina Kelly dropped a bombshell when she confronted Cox with the transcript of his evidence in the Renton trial to which he had testified: “… well in the DNA isolated from the balaclava, it was obvious that it was a mixture of more than two people”. Cox also testified: “I can only say that there were more than two donors. I mean there were only more than two donors to that DNA.”

While the DNA interpretation and testimony of Cox was accepted by the Queensland court that put Marc Renton away for 14 years, the Catalyst program uncovered another disturbing factor - the DNA evidence presented at Renton’s trial could also implicate 94 per cent of the white Australian population who would have DNA that would fit into those four peaks. “A Shadow of Doubt” was again re-televised in late 2002 and shortly after the program went to air Ken Cox ceased working at the John Tonge Centre (JTC), Queensland’s DNA laboratory, and retired from the field of forensic science.

The credibility of the Catalyst program “A Shadow of Doubt” was reinforced when it won a prestigious US television award for investigative scientific journalism. In Australia the program also became a finalist in the 2003 Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM) awards.

The interpretation of DNA evidence used in Queensland criminal trials became a matter of concern when Professor Michael Moore, the then Director of Queensland Health and Scientific Services, revealed to the media in May 2002 that the John Tonge Centre had not received accreditation by the National Association of Testing Authorities until 1999, two years after the Renton trial. However, even with that accreditation, the John Tonge Centre continued to bungle DNA evidence used in other major criminal cases.


Charges in the 1997 Arnott's biscuit extortion case were dropped as a result of flawed DNA testing procedures at Queensland's John Tonge Centre.

Tweed Heads great-grandmother, Joy Ellen Thomas, 72, was accused of threatening to poison the company's biscuits unless four Sydney detectives took lie-detector tests concerning evidence they gave against her son, convicted murderer Ronald Henry Thomas. The prosecution against Mrs Thomas relied heavily on evidence from forensic biologist Barry Blair, who conducted DNA testing for the Crown at the John Tonge Centre.

Blair testified that DNA recovered from a stamp on one of the extortion letters matched Mrs Thomas' DNA but the stamp had not been tested for saliva, so it could not be determined whether Mrs Thomas had licked the stamp. Blair claimed that although saliva testing would have identified the source of the cells it would have ruined any chance of recovering the DNA profile.

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Article edited by Maggie Dunphy.
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This is the second part in a five part series. Read part 1 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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