Authorities covering brushfires too reliant on DNA

November 4, 2010

Authorities' reliance on DNA evidence has gone too far and is undermining commonsense approaches to forensic evidence according to Dr. Lyn Turney from Swinburne University of Technology.

In a case study published in New Genetics and Society, Dr Turney, an expert on the social impacts of forensics, criticises the forensic testing that took place in the wake of the 2009 Victorian bushfire disaster.

She argues that ’ sole reliance on genetic factors in identifying the remains of the 173 victims caused unnecessary distress to families and undermined other approaches to victim identification including location, last minute telephone conversations and witness accounts.

“In putting so much faith in DNA testing, as a community we seem to have lost our ability to apply other rational processes,” she said.

“Where families were able to give solid circumstantial evidence of location and their communication with victims, this knowledge should have been taken into consideration in the identification process alongside objective scientific evidence.”

The official toll of the Victorian bushfire tragedy recorded that 113 of the 173 victims died in their homes, 27 outside their house defending it, a further six in their garage and one in their shed. In most cases their personal vehicles, their sole means of escape, were parked on their properties.

“They where were they were expected to be and where family and friends knew them to be,” Dr. Turney said. Despite this it was weeks before forensic experts confirmed their identities and families could plan funerals.

“This was a really sensitive time for families, but this was overlooked because of the need to abide by rigid scientific protocol.”

According to Dr. Turney the DNA identification process was made even more frustrating for families when, in many cases, it was unsuccessful. “In the end many victims were identified based on their location and communication with others. But these methods were not sought nor considered valid until DNA testing failed.”

“Earlier recognition of the value of these other forms of identification would have expedited the process, meaning bodies of victims could have been returned to their families in a timely manner.”

Dr. Turney believes that the reason this situation occurred is because victim identification protocols treat all mass disasters in the same way. She argues that disasters such as bushfires, which strike people who are known to be on their properties, should be treated differently to disasters which occur in public places where victim identity is uncertain, such as the Bali bombings.

“The long delays in the release of the remains to families in the wake of Black Saturday were as unsatisfactory as they were unnecessary and a clear case where protocols failed. These protocols need to be altered to take into account what has been learnt from this human tragedy.”

While just about every other aspect of the bushfire response was scrutinised by public investigation, the appropriateness of processes has still not been evaluated.

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