It took over a decade, but she did it. Eleven years of sweat and tears have finally paid off for Vanessa Lynch. And not just for Lynch – her achievement will help us all sleep easier.
On January 27 last year, President Jacob Zuma passed the groundbreaking Act No 37 of 2013: Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act, 2013 into law, declared operational as of January 31 this year. This means that the DNA profile of any person arrested or convicted of a schedule eight offence will be kept on record for comparisons.
Lynch’s campaign started in 2004 when her father, John Lynch, was shot seven times while trying to defend his wife against a gang of thieves who had broken into their Bryanston home. He didn’t make it.
On top of the tragedy of his death came the fact that no one – neither the police, paramedics, investigators nor hospital staff – had the presence of mind to keep any of the evidence that could have led to a conviction, and possibly the saving of other lives. In addition, with the best of intentions, friends, family and the public often destroy vital evidence by cleaning up the scene.
The perpetrators were never caught and may well have gone on to commit similar crimes of violence – although no official statistics exist regarding the recidivism rate in the country, the most recent data (Open Society Foundation for South Africa; 2010) postulate anything from 55 to 95 percent.
This means that a criminal DNA database would have a significant amount of repeat offenders’ DNA on file. Had that existed in 2004 it is highly probable that John Lynch would have received the justice he was owed.
The legislation ensures the creation of a DNA database that will function not only as a tool for gathering inculpatory evidence, but also for gathering exculpatory evidence, to appropriately eliminate suspects and so safeguard against wrongful convictions or other miscarriages of justice. The way in which the DNA profiles are stored, namely by using markers from the non-coded regions of a person’s DNA ensures that no genetic disposition or other distinguishing feature may be read from that profile other than gender.
The retention of the profile, in that form, is the same as a fingerprint, and therefore its retention does not impact on the privacy of the individual in any way. If an arrested person is acquitted, his or her DNA record will be expunged after three years.
The plan for making the act fully operational will involve training certain police officers in how to collect DNA from a suspect: Five thousand detectives are to be trained by the end of next month and thousands more over the next few years. The test itself is non-invasive and will not require a medical expert to conduct. The buccal swab is a simple procedure involving the collection of buccal cells from the inside of the cheek, and it takes less than a minute. The results of the DNA profile will be entered into the database and the sample destroyed within 30 days.
Lynch said: “It is virtually impossible for a criminal not to leave any DNA at the scene of the crime, be it saliva, hair, semen, skin cells, blood.”
The challenge now is to grow the database and educate the public on how it works and what their rights are. “And everyone needs to learn what to do and what not to do should they come across a crime scene… without evidence from crime scenes there would be nothing with which to compare the profiles.”
Lynch was last week appointed to the oversight board relating to the act. “I have a lot of faith the board will have a hugely positive influence on ensuring ethics are not compromised. There must be accountability when it comes to such an important piece of legislation.”