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I arrive in Perth in 40 degree heat with a fierce wind whipping across the Hertz car park and the promise that it’ll be 45 by Sunday. I’m well and truly heated through by the time I get to my tiny hire car. I have no idea what is ahead of me for the next four days and, with hindsight, I am not mentally prepared for what I see and hear.

Most of my conference attendances are about networking, meeting colleagues, learning about the newest advances in forensic science or changes in the law. Conference attendees are usually present because of their involvement in the criminal justice system but it’s very rare that we ever see or hear from the people whose lives we directly affect. And why would we? As forensic scientists, we are there to assist the court with areas of specialist knowledge. The personal touch is not something that is relevant to us – the police and the lawyers deal with the families, victims, complainants and defendants. Not our job.

This is the first conference I’ve ever attended where I haven’t looked at the programme, worked my socialising through it and considered the usual questions faced by many conference delegates: Which presentations do I want to attend and why do they clash?!  Do I have to be there for the opening welcome ceremony? Shall I go to session 18 or not?  Is it correct etiquette to sit through the whole session even if I only want to see the second presentation?

By contrast, there is nothing I don’t want to see at this conference. Even the icebreaker cocktail event is on my list of things to do because, let’s face it, there are some pretty famous people at this conference and I can learn something off all of them. It is hosted by Estelle Blackburn, an award-winning journalist who spent years chasing around the country looking for the real reason behind the deaths of Rosemary Anderson and Jillian Brewer (plus several other people). Which is odd really, when you consider that a serial murderer confessed to being their killer before being hanged in 1964, the last man to hang in Western Australia.  Some would say he only said it because he was about to be hanged and who would believe a condemned man? But, as with all these things, you have to know the whole story before being able to make comment. It’s easy enough to find the whole story now because after Estelle spent 13 years hunting down and compiling it, mostly because the Police hadn’t, she put it all in a book. As a result, two innocent men were exonerated, nearly 40 years after they were originally charged, sentenced and almost condemned to Death Row. Both served out their full jail terms.

The opening presentation of The International Justice Conference in Perth from 8 to 11 March was given by John Button. He played a snippet of the jury’s announcement at the end of his 1963 Perth trial for the Murder by Vehicle Impact of his girlfriend, who was the same Rosemary Anderson I mentioned earlier. The snippet featured the judge asking the jury foreman whether they found the accused, John Button, guilty or not guilty of murder. The answer was “not guilty”.  John Button thought his nightmare was over.

Then the audio account revealed the chairman of the jury apologising to the judge, saying he thought he had said the wrong words; he meant to say “guilty”.

BAM! Right there is the first impact of this conference. Not just for me but for pratically everyone in the room. Imagine that – an innocent man standing trial for murder, having faith in the system to find him not guilty and hearing the words ‘Not Guilty’. Only to have them ripped away and told he’s guilty of murder of a person he loved. Remember: it took 40 years for him to clear his name after it was proved that the murder was committed by someone else – the same someone who had confessed to it before being hanged for other crimes so many years ago.

It goes on from there. More harrowing accounts. They include:

  • The case of Kenny Waters, who spent 18 years in prison and whose story has been made into a Hollywood film (Conviction, starring Hilary Swank). Kenny’s sister, Betty Anne Waters, gave a dinner speech about how she trained in law so she could have her brother as a client. She did all that training and then found out that not only were items that could be tested for DNA sitting in a cardboard box, untested, but that her brother was cleared of involvement in the case within days of the murder for which he was convicted – his fingerprints didn’t match the ones found at the scene. Evidence was fabricated or altered by a police officer.  Sadly (and not in the film so I’m not ruining it), Kenny died six months after his sister helped secure his release from prison.
  • Less well-known in this part of the world but no less significant was the case of Chris Ochoa who was coerced into a false confession to murder and sexual assault – he gave three statements to the police, until he finally got the ‘facts’ right to the satisfaction of the police. He was later exonerated through DNA.
  • Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton whose 9-week-old baby was taken by a dingo is probably one of Australasia’s most well-known cases.  Part of her conviction was based on mis-identification of sound deadener spatter sprayed in a car at the time of manufacture as being blood. The forensic science was done badly yet the scientist apparently did not accept that to be the case.
  • A police crash investigator who examined John Button’s car said it hadn’t been in an impact with a human being, yet he didn’t say that at trial because he was told by the police he had to change his opinion if he still wanted a job.
  • In a recent case, an independent forensic scientist found DNA evidence that refuted the Crown’s contention that a defendant’s DNA was present in a crime scene sample. This struck a chord with me because there was a very similar case in NZ a couple of years ago. The difference was that the prosecution dropped the case on the day of the trial in the NZ example; in the Australian case the Crown’s expert had to be walked through the DNA results and even though they agreed with the individual DNA results presented by the independent expert, they refused to accept that the defendant could be excluded as a source of the DNA.
  • The case that had the most effect on me was that of Graham Stafford. It could have been because he was the last of the conference or it could have been watching the massive damaging impact his miscarriage of justice had on him – not only when in prison but after being released. I won’t go into it in detail because I felt like he gave an insight into something very personal that would not be appropriate for sharing – it’s his story and he should tell it. In 1992 he was convicted of the 1991 murder of his then-girlfriend’s younger sister, Leanne Holland, aged 12. After 14 years in prison, he was released (Supreme Court of Queensland’s 2009 judgment can be found here). It seems likely that Leanne was killed by a serial killer, not unlike the cases several decades before of John Button and Darryl Beamish who were both convicted of crimes perpetrated by a single, different man.

Of course David Bain and Joe Karam were there too, Mr Bain giving his first public presentation about his case. Other than some NZ media hype, David Bain was no different from any of the other people who gave presentations at the conference. The scientific problems in his case, with which I am very familiar having spent 9 months involved with the retrial, were also no different from the ones I heard at the conference: different case circumstances, same basic problems.

Although the emotional aspects of the cases are very cutting, it could be said that as a forensic scientist I have no place being affected by emotion. It’s a fair comment. Now I’ve had a chance to digest all of what I saw and heard, what actually had the biggest impact on me was the familiarity of many of the accounts of the personnel (mostly lawyers and scientists) in these cases. Particularly having to hear again and again how bad forensic science was a major contributor to many convictions, how unprepared or inexperienced lawyers did not test the science at trial, how bad investigative decisions had major knock-on effects leading to the final conviction, only to later be found wanting.  I’ve seen all of these in cases on which I have worked and on which I am still working.  NZ is no different from the rest of the world in this respect.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s lawyer Stuart Tipple described a tale of the constant fight within the justice system for disclosure of material and documents. This was echoed by Betty Anne Waters and others including Barry Scheck, Director of the Innocence Project. My own experiences are similar – in some cases (not all) it is nigh on impossible to obtain copies of the documentation to which we are entitled under the relevant legislation.

Forensic science has done a lot of excellent work.  In some ways, it has revolutionised criminal prosecutions.  We see regular presentations on how well the science has done in convicting the truly guilty – and there are examples aplenty of those, of which forensic science can justifiably be proud.  But it has also let a lot of people down and we can’t hide from that.  As well as showing off the good things that forensic science has achieved it’s just as important to remember how heavy a burden forensic scientists carry when they give evidence and how much the court relies on the expert witness being open enough to accept other possibilities, especially when new information becomes available.

To me this conference was not about revenge or finger-pointing or blame. It was about reality; the reality being that people were let down by the justice system and let down by science.  The key is to learn from those mistakes, make the reporting more transparent, keep the confidence of the criminal justice system.  Miscarriages of justice will still occur  – as a forensic scientist I have to work on the basis that if we fully, fairly, accurately and transparently report our findings as impartially as possible then maybe future miscarriages of justice won’t be the result of forensic science.

This is also the first conference I’ve attended for which advertising was banned in certain circles – the WA Law Society refused to allow advertising of it. Why? There didn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer to that from the representative on the legal panel discussion about Ethics.