Enormous forensic report backlog lambasted as a violation of victims’ rights
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More than a year after Muhammed Nagdee was brutally murdered, set alight and then dumped in the veld, his suspected killers are walking free.
The three suspects have not been arrested for the crime because DNA samples that could assist in solving the case sit in a police laboratory, untested.
And, in the meantime, the suspects have been let out on bail after the magistrate set the case aside, as they await the results of the DNA analysis.
The family of the well-known director and TV producer is not alone because tens of thousands of DNA samples have piled up at the country’s National Forensic Laboratories (NFSL) in Pretoria.
The extent of this backlog was recently revealed when Gauteng MEC for Community Safety, Faith Mazibuko, told Parliament that the backlog of forensic cases that had to be processed stood at 149 391 on March 4.
Mazibuko also told Parliament that as of March 4, only 35 quantification sets had been received by the laboratory in Pretoria.
These sets are used in conducting forensic investigations and preparing reports.
To Gareth Newham, the head of the Justice and Violence Prevention Programme at the Institute for Security Studies, the backlog is further evidence of the crisis the SAPS is facing. The main reason for this, he explained, is poor leadership at the top management level.
“We have had many appointments over the years into critical positions that were political or had nothing to do with experience in policing,” he explained. “If you don't sort that top management echelon out, it will be very difficult to professionalise the police and solve these problems.”
Newham said that the effect of this has rippled through the police force, blunting its ability to conduct proper policing.
He said there had been a 24% decline in the police’s ability to solve murders between 2012 and 2020. Now 80% of murders don’t get solved.
“The issue of the laboratories is one of procurement and planning,” he said.
“Two years ago the SAPS forensic science laboratory was able to process just under 130000 DNA samples collected from crime scenes. Last year, this had dropped down to 29000. This shouldn't be happening if you had the right people fulfilling their functions at their posts.”
The biggest blacklog at the FSL is in their biological division, with 111 342 cases yet to be attended. The biological division analyses body fluids, DNA and hair samples.
Ballistics, which focuses on firearm analysis has a backlog of 9849 cases, while the chemical division which investigates incidents relating to fires, drugs, chemical related crimes are backlogged by 26 679 cases.
The scientific division which investigates forensic samples of materials, fluids, medicine, poisonous substances, etc, have 1 474 cases.
Document investigation, such as that of forgeries, has a backlog of 44 cases.
Mazibuko indicated that routine evidence is usually ready within 35 days from registration, non-routine evidence is finalised 113 days after registration and ballistic evidence after 90 days from registration.
Nagdee’s charred remains were discovered in an open field in Honeydew, on the West Rand.
“The backlog has affected the case in a very negative way,” said Zainul Nagdee, Muhammed’s uncle.
“The case is now on hold pending the DNA. By the time the police start investigating again, the leads would have gone cold.”
As time has passed the family has become increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in the investigation.
“The worst part is we have no idea when it will be done. There are more than 150 000 outstanding DNA requests. Do the maths. Assume there are ten people working in the lab.
’’The maximum they can do is around three a day. So one person does 60 a month, which totals 600 per month. When are they going to get to 150 000?” he asked.
Other families are also in limbo as they wait for the police to clear the backlogs.
The family of five-year-old Chantelle Makwena, who was brutally raped and murdered, were told by the prosecutor that the reason the suspect had not been arrested was that there was no reagent at the labs to perform the DNA testing required to link him to the crime.
The suspect, who was out on bail for another rape case, has since disappeared.