The exposure of flawed DNA testing procedures at Queensland’s John Tonge Centre contained in a leaked internal report, compiled by Ms Deanna Belzer on February 12, 2005, reinforced repeated claims made during the past six years by convicted bank robber Marc Andre Renton, that he had been wrongfully convicted on the strength of flawed DNA evidence. Renton’s claims were substantiated by Australia’s foremost DNA expert Professor Barry Boettcher.
Renton is not the only Queensland prisoner who has claimed he is suffering a miscarriage of justice resulting from the flawed testing procedures or the scientific interpretation of DNA evidence offered to Queensland courts by staff from the John Tonge Centre.
The Wayne Edward Butler case
The brutal murder of Natasha Douty, a Queensland resort worker who was bashed to death on a secluded beach on Brampton Island in 1983, remained unsolved for 18 years. Sydney businessman, Wayne Edward Butler, was holidaying on Brampton Island when Douty was killed but claimed he was jogging around the island unaccompanied for four hours at the time of the murder. He was originally eliminated as a suspect after he submitted to a blood test. Without an eyewitness account or confessional evidence the crime remained unsolved until Butler’s arrest and conviction in 2001.
Butler’s conviction became a flagship for DNA profiling in Queensland, after staff from the John Tonge Centre testified that semen found on a towel at the crime scene in 1983 matched Butler’s DNA profile. That evidence was coupled with testimony that the chance of someone else having the same DNA profile as Butler was forty-three trillion to one. The ABO or blood grouping technology that originally cleared Butler as a suspect in 1983 was rejected by the jury in preference to the DNA evidence.
The Queensland Court of Criminal Appeal supported the jury’s verdict and said the jury was justified in rejecting the results of the 1983 blood test on the grounds that DNA provides a more certain result and the blood samples may have been degraded. Despite the supposedly irrefutable DNA evidence, which convicted Butler, and later upheld by the Queensland Criminal Court of Appeal, he has steadfastly maintained his innocence of the crime.
Butler’s protestations of innocence have again been reinforced by scientific conclusions from Australia’s foremost DNA expert, Professor Barry Boettcher, who questions the DNA evidence put before the jury and the opinion of the Queensland Criminal Court of Appeal when it dismissed Butler’s appeal. Professor Boettcher disagrees that an ABO test is forensically less certain than a DNA test and claimed “the only difference between an ABO test and a DNA test is that it is less discriminatory”.
Professor Boettcher’s scientific opinion is supported by his conclusion that it is not Butler’s semen on the towel. The semen on the towel came from a man with blood Group “O”. Wayne Butler is blood group “B”. Professor Boettcher suggested that the errors in the DNA testing process relating to the Butler case could have resulted from the mislabelling of test tubes inside the John Tonge Centre - a fact that was substantiated during Butler’s trial when staff from the John Tonge Centre admitted making labelling errors during the DNA testing process.
The Robert Paul Hytch case
Disputed DNA evidence in another Queensland murder case resulted with Robert Paul Hytch, 29, being freed from prison after he was acquitted of killing missing 16-year-old Bowen schoolgirl Rachael Antonio. A previous 1999 Townsville Supreme Court jury had found him guilty for the manslaughter of the missing Bowen teenager and he was jailed for nine years.
DNA evidence used to convict Hytch during his 1999 trial involved a spot of blood found on his sandal which forensic experts claimed was 900,000-1 chance of being from Antonio. It was argued at his appeal that the DNA evidence was so powerful, from an emotional sense, it had to impact on the jury decision but it should have been ruled inadmissible hearsay because the witness who gave the evidence during the trial merely read a report of work done by others.
The defence was not able to cross-examine those who did the actual work about the possibility of contamination or degradation of DNA samples. The blood found on Hytch’s sandal could not be aged. The blood could have got there any time and there was no evidence to support the theory that she bled before she died because the body has not been found.
At his second trial Hytch’s defence lawyer, Harvey Walters, argued that the whole case against his client hinged on dodgy scientific evidence. The defence called its own forensic expert who disputed the DNA evidence linking Ms Antonio to a sandal worn by Hytch on the night of her disappearance and the jury subsequently acquitted him.
Flawed DNA testing procedures and the questionable interpretation of DNA evidence is not solely confined to the Queensland legal system.
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