Police Life: The Experts podcast, Episode 4: DNA in from the cold transcript

Today’s investigators of historical murders and sexual assaults are reaping the benefits of the impressive foresight of forensic scientists back in the 1980s. 

We speak to a Victoria Police DNA expert and lift the lid on the Forensic Services Department’s freezer project, where evidence from hundreds of crimes from decades ago is kept. 

Listen to this episode and other episodes of Victoria Police's official podcast, Police Life: The Experts.

Transcript of Police Life: The Experts podcast, Episode 4: DNA in from the cold

Voiceover: You’re listening to Police Life: The Experts, a Victoria Police podcast shining a light on our people and their extraordinary skills.

Voiceover: This podcast episode contains a brief reference to sexual assault. If you feel you need assistance after listening, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If life is in danger, call Triple Zero (000).

[Mysterious, ticking music plays]

Voiceover: Today’s forensic scientists owe a debt to those who came before them. Decisions taken decades ago are helping deliver justice on cold cases long thought to be hopeless. It’s a cliché of investigations that the answer can be found in the file.

But for Victoria Police’s forensic detectives, the answer is in the freezer. And offenders of the past can no longer rest easy. 

Audio of Kate OutteridgeSo, I have heard some stories from investigators that I've dealt with regarding people that have had knocks on the door about cases that have been from the 80s and that they were quite surprised to have the police there, but then accepting that, “yes, OK, now I've been caught”.

My name is Kate Outteridge. I work at the Victoria Police Forensic Services Centre in the Biological Sciences Group. And I've been working within the Biological Sciences area for the last 13 years as a case manager.

Voiceover: Kate and her fellow DNA experts in the Biological Sciences Group make up just one of the many units at the Forensic Services Department. Other areas of expertise include fingerprints, ballistics, fire and explosives, document examination, drug sciences, botany and more.

More than 500 people work across the department and they carry out more than 75,000 examinations each year.

Audio of Kate Outteridge: So there there's a freezer contained within the examination area of the laboratory, and it's full of tiny samples. They're not actually things like T-shirts and shorts and that kind of thing. It's just little tiny bits of fabric, bits of cotton swabs and they're all little items that were taken off a larger item. 

And what happened was back in the 80s, the mid 80s, they had the foresight to determine that there could possibly be future tests available that might assist with police investigations. 

So, what they did was, they collected some small samples from large items and labelled them all up, put them into a freezer and they just sat there for a large number of years, waiting for the advancement of science and for the laboratory to have something available which would potentially assist with the police investigations.

I think it was over 500 cases that were within the freezer and these entailed cases that were sex offences, homicide cases and some other types of cases as well. Primarily, they were sex offence cases where the suspect was unknown.

So it came to the early 2010s, 2011, and a colleague of mine brought up with the laboratory manager that we had these samples available, and they were potentially some useful information that could be provided to investigators. And so a proposal was put forward, which was then approved, to have two staff specifically working on this freezer project. 

And the idea was to take all of these little samples, determine which would be the best for DNA testing to try to get a DNA profile, which could then be put onto a DNA database to see if it matched to a person or if it matched to another crime scene.

I was involved in this project along with my colleague and then two other staff, who were going to be responsible for taking the samples out of the freezer and cutting them out and putting them into small tubes, which were then processed to get a DNA profile.

So, we worked on this pretty much exclusively for about six months.

Voiceover: By the time Kate and her colleagues began working on the freezer project, science had moved forward light years and Victoria Police had built a world class forensic capability and a reputation for scientific method and independence.

Audio of Executive Director Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: We're very fortunate in that we are the largest forensic science provider in Australia, if not in the southern hemisphere.

My name is Doctor Rebecca Kogios, and I'm the executive director of the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department.

I have held this post for four years now, but I have been in the forensic industry for 25 years.

So the staff of the Forensic Services Department, we are employed by Victoria Police, but our job really is to find, objectively, the evidence that is present in any given case.

Now, what we do with the results of our work, well, initially we provide that information through to police and that information can be very useful in terms of directing the course of the investigation.

So, we think about that initial production of results in the sort of investigative space.

And that's where we think about our work and the results of our work more in what we call the evidential stream. The work that we do in the evidential stream, we are absolutely there to assist the court. 

We don't see our work as being there to assist police or to assist either side, we’re there literally to provide an objective view to the court about the evidence, the physical evidence, that's been found at any particular location.

Voiceover: The leadership of the Forensic Services Department has driven the freezer project. Bec has a cohort of scientists that has remained largely unchanged since the project began in 2012.   

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: We do instil in our staff from day one that their role is there to serve the broader community, and that when you come and work in a department like the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department, you are entering a pretty special place with a long history of service excellence. We’ve been world leaders in a number of different domains. 

So, when our staff come into the department and they're new, we do spend time with them, helping them understand the importance of the work that they do and the absolute essential element that is this, this independence, if you like, that underpins everything that we do.

We always look to the long term and we would never compromise our values around independence and robust science. We just wouldn't do it.

Voiceover: Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘forensic’ does not mean meticulous or thorough but literally means used in connection with the courts of law. This is particularly relevant to the freezer project where the work of Bec's team must withstand scrutiny, not just in the laboratory but under fire in the court room.

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: I think the community has an expectation that violent offenders are held to account, but the community also rightly has an expectation that innocent people are not convicted of crime and we play a really important role in that space.

And we take that very seriously: that we are there to serve the community and ultimately a strong forensic service provider can give the community a degree of faith that their forensic system is operating appropriately; that if there is evidence available in a case, it will be found; that that evidence will be processed appropriately; that evidence will not be lost or missed because of sub-optimal practices or lack of contemporary methods, but that the results of that forensic testing will be weighed properly, scrutinised according to best practice and that the results will withstand scrutiny in a court of law.

[Pensive music plays]

Audio of Kate Outteridge: The first court I did was actually in Sydney where I was there as a scientist who'd examined some items. But what my boss didn't tell me was that there were seven defendants in the case, and then there were seven defence barristers there. Luckily, I was only examined by three of them. 

But going from that initial, quite terrifying, court experience, and now, because I've been to a number of courts, it does get easier. But it's not ever a comfortable experience because obviously you don't know what's going to be asked of you. And you might get asked some simple questions or you might end up being at court for days giving evidence.

[Cymbal crash, music stops]

Voiceover: By now you’re probably realising that Victoria Police’s forensic staff are far from being just boffins in white coats. There’s a passion and drive behind their work that is exemplified in the freezer project. There is a partnership with investigators looking to resolve historic sex crimes. 

Audio of Kate Outteridge: We worked very closely with the cold case Sex Crimes Squad, who had just been put together in 2012 and so therefore we were able to supply them with information about cases that had not been solved, and they could potentially look into further investigations for those kinds of cases.

There's a lot of different cases as well that have maybe not as much notoriety, which were quite important as well. For example, there was some matches on the database that we had to four different cases. 

So previously it was unknown that these cases were linked and, through this freezer project, these four cases were all linked to be the same offender. They were all sex offences against four different women.

It was actually determined that the person responsible had died in jail, and the women weren't aware of this, but due to the freezer project, the police were able to give them this information and give them some closure.

Voiceover: And sometimes police come to the forensics department looking for a lucky break, hoping the crucial evidence they seek could be found in the freezer – as happened in an investigation of a few years ago. 

Audio of Kate Outteridge: It was actually through an inquiry, through a detective who called to find out if there was something that the laboratory could do because the complainant had called them and said, “I'm interested to know whether my case can go any further, if there’s anything that can be done”.

Voiceover: The female victim had been raped in eastern Melbourne in the late 1980s. After the investigation had long gone cold, the Sexual Crimes Squad opened it again at her request in the mid-2010s.

Audio of Kate Outteridge: So, I started looking into the case and there were some samples that were retained in the freezer that had been tested, but initially the DNA profiles that I looked at, they weren't good enough for the database. So, there wasn't enough information in them.

So, in order to put a DNA profile onto the DNA database, we need a certain number of DNA types to be present in that profile.

If there aren't enough, we generate way too many matches and it's not focusing in on the possible person who's contributing the DNA. So, we need a bit more information. So, in this particular case, there was limited information of the offender’s DNA.

There are two DNA testing kits that are used within the laboratory, but the kit that was used for this project initially was one called Profiler Plus which was the DNA testing kit that looked at 10 DNA sites, including a sex indicating site

Now, currently the laboratory uses the DNA testing kit called PowerPlex 21, which looks at 21 DNA sites, which are comparable to the Profiler Plus DNA sites. So they're the same incorporated, but the PP21 gives a bit more information that the Profiler Plus didn’t.

So for this particular case, the initial testing was done using Profiler Plus and then it was retested using the current DNA testing kit, which gives a bit more information. So, we still didn't have enough information to put a profile on the database.

However, in my involvement with the project, we've tried to get all of the samples that we possibly can for this project and have a list, and there was another section within a different freezer where there were some different samples.

And we have a list of those recorded and I found that this case had one of those samples and put this through for DNA testing and we managed to get a complete PP21 DNA profile from it. So that's the full 21 sites. And it was a male profile and it was suitable for the database.

So, then I could use that to compare to the comparison database to see if it matched to any profiles on the database, and it did.

[Slow guitar music plays]

Voiceover: Suddenly, almost three decades after the offence, Audio of Kate Outteridge presented the investigator with a name. Contrary to myths created by TV shows like CSI, these matches are not dramatic eureka moments. 

Audio of Kate Outteridge: It's just like a big spreadsheet, so it's not as exciting as it sounds, but it is quite satisfying when you see that there is a match between an evidentiary sample and then a person sample.

[Mysterious music plays]

Voiceover: The investigator in this case was Detective Leading Senior Constable Leigh Prados, working in the Sexual Crimes Squad’s cold case unit.

Detective Leading Senior Constable Leigh Prados: Realistically speaking, I don't think this case could have been solved without the further information provided from Audio of Kate Outteridge.

The reason I say that is, with the benefit of knowing that further information about who a person of interest may have been, I went back to the original case file, reviewed every scrap of paper that we had retained, and I mean every note. It is the job of a cold case investigator to read and reread everything that is recorded. Without going into specifics, I was provided with a name.

Clearly, I had an interest in locating that name through several archive boxes of material. And I can say that the name did appear, but it was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of other names.

And the nature of the information that was recorded wasn't such that I would have prioritised that name above the others.

So what I'm getting at is without that reference, without that information from Kate, I think there's almost no likelihood that that offender, who went on to being accused, would have been identified through the review process.

I personally can't speak highly enough of the expertise that they provide to investigators.

Audio of Kate Outteridge: I think for us, it's all in a day's work and we're just giving the information to the investigators who can then use that.

For this particular case, it actually goes through quite normal avenues in that it gets sent onto the LEAP computer system and then flagged to the informant of the case, who can then read the information. So, there's no Eureka phone calls, unfortunately.

I'm moving on to the next one already, but it's interesting because then potentially I might end up going to court for the case. So, then, I'm presenting my evidence in court. 

But apart from that, I don't hear what else happens to the case, potentially, unless it's in the media, because my role is just looking at the DNA, the biological material. And I don't have any further input apart from providing my results.

It’s hard to be involved in these kind of cases and not have, if not a small, a large emotional response to the case itself, because I do receive information about what happens during the offence and it's not, it's not nice. 

These things are quite horrible that happen to people, so yes, there is an emotional response, but I think being a scientist and having that layer of separation from the defendants and the complainants, I can just get on with my job and do what I do well, which is to organise the samples, analyse results and report our results.

Voiceover: The match to the sample in the freezer was just the first break in the case. Leigh needed to corroborate the DNA result with other kinds of evidence, physical and circumstantial – witness and victim accounts all needed to marry up to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. 

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: Particularly if you're talking about a, you know, a complex case, a serious crime against a person that's found its way into the County Court or into the Supreme Court, generally speaking, you will have several different strands of forensic evidence. 

There might be some DNA evidence, there might be some fingerprint evidence, there could be any number of different types of forensic evidence that's present in that particular case. And then on top of that, there's all of the other evidence that is being brought forward in that case.

So, the notion that it's, you know, easy to get away with it by planting a single cigarette butt from someone else that you might have picked up on the street, I just think that that's not reality.

Voiceover: In this case, everything lined up and the offender, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was arrested, charged and found guilty. The freezer had proved its worth again. 

Detective Leading Senior Constable Leigh Prados: I think it's a credit to the experts who put in the thought and the work at that early stage. Clearly, they were aware of the advances being made in technology.

And as I understand it, often it takes a lot of resource, effort, and money and time to get all of this set up. To their credit, they did it even though they knew that, at the time, it's not going to help the case.

But being willing to be in it for the long haul and realising that perhaps in 10, 20, 30 years or longer we will have the technology and the means to derive the evidence that we need.

Incredible foresight.

Without Kate Outteridge and without the scientists, experts, sworn and unsworn members, I think it's fair to say that a lot of investigations and, specifically, cold case investigations, could remain unsolved indefinitely.

Voiceover: But whether a crime happened 30 minutes ago or 30 years ago, Kate, Leigh and all their colleagues at Victoria Police are determined to see justice fulfilled.

Detective Leading Senior Constable Leigh Prados: At the very least, there is a feeling of people knowing and – particularly the victim and particularly in sex crimes – of the victim knowing that police didn't give up. 

And when I say police, I think that means the community. People didn't just give up and didn't stop caring because it got too hard.

These are horrendous crimes. They were when they occurred and they remain so to this day. And the fact that every effort continues to be made, I think reflects the community's expectation about the effort that will be given to these cases.

As an investigator, I feel my main duty in a case like that is to the victim and the community. And at the end, and as this case was, it went through a court process and that matter concluded with the conviction. There was just a sense of, I suppose, a promise being kept and a duty being fulfilled.

Voiceover: DNA analysis and forensic work in general can easily work the other way, helping to prove that a suspect was innocent or even helping to free someone in jail who’s been wrongly convicted.   

Audio of Kate Outteridge: So obviously there's certain cases where people were nominated as suspects for a matter, and then the DNA shows that it actually wasn't that person. So, this is also assisting the police to then try some different leads to see who the other person actually is.

Voiceover: The forensic scientists of the past saved the DNA samples waiting for science to catch up, and in the same way, Bec Kogios’ team has one eye on future cases as DNA science rapidly advances. 

Audio of Kate OutteridgeThere's a lot of different research that's out there at the moment which is, I suppose, on the forefront of this. An example would be DNA phenotyping, which is looking at characteristics of a person, so, looking at a DNA sample and then using that information to determine what the person looked like. 

And it's in its infancy at the moment, but that could be a line of advancement of the type of DNA testing that's carried out for police investigations. So that would be things like exactly eye colour, hair colour and sometimes the features of someone's face, although, at the moment, it's not very precise, so it can't actually determine how someone looks. 

But potentially, it could give information about a person's heritage which might assist an investigation. And there are some, I suppose, variations in terms of the accuracy of the eye and the hair colour so, in its current state, you wouldn't want the police to rely on that solely.

[Eerie chimes play]

Voiceover: The development of DNA technology will mean even more unsolved cases will be resolved in the future, but only if the methods employed are beyond reproach. Bec’s team is not just confined to the lab and plays a crucial role in the field gathering evidence that will be tested in court.   

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: So in terms of the day-to-day processing, what will happen is a crime will occur, a report will be made or the first responder to the scene will alert the Forensic Services Department that there's been, let's say it's a homicide.

Our major crime scene crew will deploy to the scene. They will conduct their examination of that crime scene. And what that means is that our experienced crime scene examiner, when they arrive at the scene, if they need a fire investigator, or if they find a clandestine lab, you know, as part of the scene, they need a clandestine laboratory scientist, or they need a blood spatter expert.

All of this expertise exists within the Victoria Police Forensic Services Department, so they can very easily make the call and get the right expert into the scene with them. And so what we have is essentially a multi-forensic-disciplined team that deploys to the crime scene.

And that enables us to harvest all available evidence from that scene.

And really, the thing about crime scene work is you only really get one go at it. So, what you fail to pick up on the day – once that scene is handed back to the, you know, the owner of the residence, or say if it's an open area that's open to the general public – once you hand that scene back, once the scene cordon is gone, you've really lost your ability to get that evidence.

The beauty of crime scene work in Victoria now is that it's the Major Crime Scene Group who own the crime scene and that's very clear in our protocols.

So once forensic services attend to the scene, we take charge of that scene. We are responsible for contamination minimisation practices at that scene, so it really is up to us to determine who comes in and who leaves.

And our forensic services staff here, we enjoy a really good reputation with our colleagues in Victoria Police.

So we are trusted. If the major crime scene examiner says, “This is how this scene needs to be processed”, then they will be left to process that scene in the way that they see fit.

Voiceover: And that way is rigorous because the evidence must stand up in court.

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: My recollection from my time in the box is, you know, an hour in the in the witness box feels like four hours of normal life.

It’s intense, it’s heavy and every aspect of what you've done in the case, the decisions that you've made, the actions that you've taken, is subject to scrutiny. 

It's a real high-pressure environment and look, I think that that's really the value of the expertise. So, the more courts you go to, the more keenly aware of that fact you become, and perhaps the more meticulous you become in your practice, as you do your casework over the years, and we're very lucky that we have some incredibly experienced forensic scientists on our staff here at Victoria Police Forensic Services Department.

There's different types of stress and I think one of the ways of managing the stress is by understanding the different pressures that our staff are under.

Some of our staff members that go out to crime scenes, there are physical pressures that they're under. I'm thinking in particular about our clandestine lab staff. They have to wear protective suits when they're out in the field and those are difficult suits to wear, particularly on a hot day.

So, we do little things to help them in the work that they do, we have ice baths for example, on the scene for them to go and stick their arms into when they've been sweltering under a hot sun.

Many of our staff are exposed to significant trauma through the nature of the work that they do, and I'm thinking here particularly about our major crime scene examiners, our blood spatter experts, our fires and explosive experts who have to spend considerable time in burnt-out houses with burnt out bodies sometimes; our collision reconstruction experts who go to some of the worst collisions on our roads, and many other scientists and staff of our department.

Exposure to that level of trauma takes its toll. How can it not? Particularly when you do it time and time again over the course of a year and then multiple years in your career.

Crime touches people in a variety of different ways, and that's never lost on us.

So having to separate yourself from that so that you can do your work objectively and get the best result in the case. These are the ways that we try to support our staff with the various different challenges that they face.

Voiceover: Bec is a such an effective manager because of the time she spent in the field.   

[Reflective music plays]

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: There is one case that stays with me. And I think that that was around some of the things that I saw in that particular crime scene that I could really relate to.

There was a musical instrument and I play the same musical instrument. There was a book on a bookshelf that I’d just finished reading. There was a calendar on the wall that showed the birth date of one of the deceased. 

And that birth date was coming up that next week, and it was the same birthday that I had, and it turned out that this person was exactly the same age as me.

So, it’s those sorts of things that I think that bring it home to you that this could be any one of us that could find ourselves in this situation.

Audio of Kate Outteridge: I do go to crime scenes as well and, I mean, a lot of people ask me if I go out to dinner and they find out what I do, and you know, “Tell me about your work”.

But it’s not really dinner conversation to talk about the kinds of crime scenes that I go to. But I think the things that do affect you are definitely the small things at a scene. 

So not just the body. It might be a photo of children on the fridge, or it might be that the person's written a letter to someone. So, it's the little things that potentially might affect you afterwards rather than actually the scene itself.

There's definitely a lot of adrenaline once you get to the scene, because there are a lot of things to consider but we work with the Major Crime Scene Unit and they are exceptional in what they do and very good in assisting us to determine what testing is needed to be done and where we need to examine within the crime scene.

So, I think once you get to the scene, it's one of those things where you just need to evaluate it and work out what needs to be done and just get on with it.

And we're all trained to work in a particular way, so that once we get to the crime scene, we know what we have to do and we just get on and do it.

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: I mean, there are some people that, you know, the blood and gore is the problem.

So, I'm thinking back to my training when I first came in and started doing crime scene work, they would start off with black and white photographs and if you went OK with the black and white photographs, then you'd move on to coloured photographs.

If you found that was OK, you were able to manage looking at those photographs, then you would go out to a crime scene and you'd follow an experienced expert.

And, for me, the first few crime scenes I went to didn't involve a dead body.

And then once I had coped OK with that, then I went to scenes involving a dead body, so it was a gradual exposure over time and through that process the managers at the time knew that I was going to be OK with those aspects of the crime scene.

I guess the danger is that it colours your view to the point that you start to have a negative mindset about humanity and human nature. And, for me personally, I can't speak for others, the way I deal with that is by consciously looking for good and there's good all around us. 

And even in some of the most horrific human experiences, there's still, in my experience, good to be found somewhere, so I think it's important to keep focused on that.

[Reflective music plays]

Voiceover: Victoria Police’s Forensic Services Department strives for an unemotional approach to their work despite the unique stresses and strains of their jobs. However, there’s a lot of excitement about the freezer project as members contemplate what impact it will have on solving future crimes. 

Audio of Kate Outteridge: It's not specifically what's in the freezer, it's more the profiles that we've got now.

So, we've still got samples that we get requests to do some more analysis on. 

Technology is going to continue to improve, the DNA testing methods are going to become more sensitive and give more information, and hopefully there will be more cases that we can retest samples to try to get DNA profiles from.

If there is a case that there are some items that haven't been tested in there from a long time ago, police can submit them to be tested, we can try different methods to see if we can get a profile which can then be used.

So, we've got the opportunities now to use the DNA testing kits that the laboratory has, to assist the police for cases where they might have an item that's been sitting in a property office for a number of years, not knowing what to do with and the laboratory can assist with this.

Audio of Dr Rebecca Kogios: I think, you know, the members of this department rightly feel very proud of the expertise that they have.

They've worked hard to develop that expertise and expertise is worth something, it means something. To be able to bring that expertise to real life problems and generate outcomes for people – whether it's an individual suspect being exonerated, or whether it's a conviction being upheld, partly on the on the back of strong forensic evidence – there's closure there. 

There's closure for people who've been impacted by crime in the community, and there's an immense degree of satisfaction that comes from playing your small part in that process.

Voiceover: To learn more about the work of Victoria Police, go to police.vic.gov.au.

And a reminder that if any of the themes in this episode have had an impact on you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If life is in danger, call Triple Zero (000).

Police Life: The Experts is a Victoria Police production. 

Your host is Belinda Batty. It was written by Adam Shand. 

Additional writing and research by Jesse Wray-McCann. 

It was produced by Adam Shand and Jesse Wray-McCann.

The senior producer was Ros Jaguar. 

Audio production and original music by Mat Dwyer.

Theme song by Veaceslav Draganov. 

Executive produced by Beck Angel. 

This podcast was created by the Media, Communications and Engagement Department at Victoria Police.