South Africa has one of the highest crime rates internationally and an overburdened police and judicial system that results in few convictions.
The system is in dire need of a comprehensive national DNA database which will help convict offenders and exonerate people wrongly accused, improving the effectiveness and accuracy of the legal system.
The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill (referred to as the DNA bill) is now before Parliament and, if voted into law, could drastically change South Africa’s conviction rate, with repeat offenders being caught earlier than was previously possible.
The non-profit DNA Project has been leading the fight to expand South Africa’s DNA database, which is limited by size, lack of supporting legislation and expertise.
With the implementation of this bill in its current state, it would be mandatory for DNA to be collected at all crime scenes as well as from people arrested or convicted of an offence. This allows police to match DNA if there is a suspect or help identify perpetrators where there are no leads.
Vanessa Lynch, founder and director of DNA Project, became aware of how far behind South Africa was with regard to forensic investigations after her father, John, was murdered at his home in Joburg in 2004.
In an interview with Carte Blanche in 2007, Lynch explained how a lack of expertise meant that evidence was lost.
She recalled how a brandy bottle, presumably belonging to the intruders, was simply thrown away because the police believed they didn’t have the resources to lift DNA. Friends had washed away the blood, in an effort to ease the family’s pain, not realising they were destroying evidence.
Later that year, 21-year-old Leigh Matthews was abducted and killed. Lynch contacted Rob Matthews, Leigh’s father, and appealed to him to work with her.
He agreed, and using some of the funds from a trust set up after Leigh’s murder, the DNA Project was born in 2005.
On seeing the Carte Blanche broadcast, KwaZulu-Natal geneticist, Dr Carolyn Hancock, a lecturer at the University of KZN , decided to get involved.
Talking to the Daily News, Hancock, now a director with the organisation, said a DNA database would go a long way in helping police find leads and exonerating those falsely accused.
As it stands, the Criminal Procedures Act, formulated before the first use of DNA in a criminal case, prevents police from taking DNA samples from convicted criminals.
The draft bill was approved by the cabinet in 2008, but the process was delayed because of elections.
It was reintroduced to Parliament on May 8 this year and assigned to the National Assembly’s police committee. If it goes through, the legislation will ensure anyone arrested for a schedule 1 offence will be photographed and have their fingerprints and a DNA swab taken.
“Most offenders are repeat offenders, particularly sexual offenders,” explained Hancock. “Because of this, we’re hoping the draft of the legislation will be passed. One particularly important aspect is that the taking of DNA from convicted offenders will be retrospective, meaning that we can profile the DNA of those currently in prison before their release.”
She said the new bill had been drafted to ensure that the DNA database was used to its full potential in combating and preventing crime, but that it would have a minimal impact on citizens’ civil rights.
“The way in which the DNA profiles are stored on the DNA database, 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. Names are not used, only a sequence of numbers which would be matched and then linked to specific cases,” Hancock said.
“The DNA sample itself is destroyed and only the sequence of numbers to make up the profile is retained in the database, so it does not impact on the privacy of the individual in any way,” she said.
The bill also calls for a change in the way DNA has to be taken as it can only be taken in the form of blood by a medical professional. “We want to change this so any trained police officer can take a simple cheek swab.”
Because everybody has a unique DNA profile and it’s found in blood, saliva, skin cells, sweat, semen, bone, teeth, fingernails and the roots of hair, it’s difficult for criminals not to leave DNA behind at a crime scene.
Once obtained, DNA will be sent to one of two forensic labs based in Pretoria and Cape Town. Between them, about 3 000 samples can be processed a day.
To bridge the gap between the science and knowledge of how to preserve DNA evidence at a crime scene, the project has been offering awareness training to people likely to be the first on a crime scene such as the police, security guards and paramedics.
People are encouraged to submit views on the bill (www.pmg.org.za/bill) by e-mailing Babalwa Mbengo at [email protected] by no later than noon on Friday. Enquiries can be directed to Mbengo at 021 403 3741 or 072 327 1993.
Verbal submissions will be heard by the police committee on June 11 and 12.