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The DNA Bill – which will make it mandatory for police to take DNA samples from people arrested for serious crimes and convicted offenders, to be used as part of a national database – was written into law this week.
It has been a five-year journey to turn the bill into a reality, but this could pale in comparison to the difficult task of actually implementing the new act over the next few years.
“There will no doubt be challenges,” admitted Vanessa Lynch, founder of the DNA Project.
But many of these would be addressed by an oversight board and a five-year implementation plan.
Her organisation has been lobbying for the bill as far back as 2004, the year in which her father, David Lynch, was attacked and shot dead by intruders in his Bryanston home in Joburg.
The investigation into his death went nowhere after every scrap of DNA evidence on the scene was lost.
Lynch said it was an exciting moment when the DNA Act became part of legislation this week.
The act would require police to take DNA samples – by swabbing the inside cheek with a buccal swab (similar to a large cotton bud) – from suspects arrested for serious crimes as well as convicted offenders, parolees and detainees.
The sample would then be analysed and the DNA profile entered into an appropriate index on the database.
“The sample itself will be destroyed,” said Lynch.
Searching the DNA profiles against DNA collected from crime scenes, would link people to crimes, including those committed before the act was passed. It could also prove the innocence or guilt of an accused person and help exonerate someone who had been incorrectly convicted of a crime.
Lynch said the act also made provision to regulate the database and protect samples from being tampered with or lost.
But a large part of the act involved training and equipping officers to collect samples.
“There is a five-year roll-out plan to train specially appointed police officials to carry out the task of collecting samples using buccal swabs from arrestees and convicted offenders.”
An oversight body will guide the act through its implementation. Lynch said there were strict time constraints placed on every phase of the act’s implementation to ensure it did not end up being another piece of dormant legislation.
DA spokeswoman for safety and security Diane Kohler-Barnard said the passing of the act was a huge success for the portfolio committee.
She was confident the retroactive collection of samples from jailed criminals would help alleviate the burden on detectives who were sitting on stacks of cold cases.
“The truth is that most criminals don’t just commit a single crime, and many of those behind bars can probably be linked to far more crimes than they have been convicted for.”
The database would make it easy for police to cross-check DNA evidence from their dockets against the forensic profiles taken from inmates.
But, Kohler-Barnard doubted the police would implement the act successfully. She said the police force had a track record of dragging their feet or just ignoring new legislation.
“Time will tell, and I’m hoping they can prove me wrong.”
For forensic expert David Klatzow, it is not only the implementation that is worrying him – which he said would already be hindered by an overburdened and undertrained police force – but that the library had not been tested properly.
“We needed a pilot project or two, but they are rushing headlong into this and we could end up in a situation where the added responsibility for police officials actually slows the system down even more.”