From discarded bottles to high-tech DNA equipment

DNA profiling has become an indispensable tool in fighting crime. The process offers a host of benefits, such as quick identification of criminals or the elimination of suspects — as well as solid evidence for presentation in court.

However, profiling is not something that law-enforcement officials in South Africa always use effectively, despite the crime plaguing the country. Police recorded 54 926 rapes and 18 545 murders in 2005/06, for instance, figures that eclipse those in many other parts of the world. In England and Wales, 14 449 rapes and 765 murders were recorded over the same period, according to government statistics.

Vanessa Lynch aims to change this. A few years ago, she started an initiative called the DNA Project in response to her own tragic experience of crime in the commercial hub of Johannesburg.

What prompted you to launch the DNA Project?

The idea started after my father was murdered on March 23 2004. Those responsible for the crime drank brandy and Coca-Cola in his garden — but following the murder, the SAPS (South African Police Service) threw away the bottles. They said they didn’t have the technology to lift DNA samples from the bottles, which were vital evidence.

I believe that if we had had an efficient DNA database in place at the time, the DNA profiles of the gang that murdered my father could have been lifted from the crime scene. The gang had been operating in that area for some time. By now, its members could have been arrested and linked to several crimes in the area.

So, the gang remains at large?

Yes, it remains at large. (After the murder) I approached the Matthews family, whose daughter, Leigh, was also murdered in a violent crime in 2004. Leigh’s murder generated a massive amount of publicity, and both the Matthews family and I wanted to contribute meaningfully to alleviating crime in South Africa. People asked how they could help or donated money, and the Leigh Matthews Trust was generated to ensure achievable and tangible actions.

First, we ruled out criticising the (South African Police Service) forensic science laboratory. We didn’t want to point fingers; we wanted to help where it was necessary. Secondly, we didn’t want to throw money at the police. That doesn’t work. Thirdly, we wanted to give the forensic science laboratory the equipment it needs.

How does South Africa’s DNA database compare with databases in other countries?

We have a very small DNA database compared with other established databases around the world. For example, the United Kingdom, where crime is not so serious, has recorded over three million DNA profiles, while South Africa has under 80 000 profiles. South Africa also has a backlog of up to two years in some cases. It’s this gap we’re trying to help bridge.

A backlog of what, exactly? Analysing samples?

The backlog refers to DNA samples that require processing: the process of lifting, isolating and analysing DNA is quite intricate and lengthy. As an example, there are rape kits in the Western Cape just waiting to be processed and analysed for DNA. (A rape kit is used to collect and save physical evidence of sexual assault, such as semen, hair and blood.)

Are you entirely focused on purchasing equipment for the database, or do you deal with training as well?

We don’t provide training; that is handled by the forensic science laboratory. We assist with capital requirements. We want to assist police by identifying bottlenecks, and overcoming them by providing equipment.

And, what has the project achieved to date?

We have provided three image-capturing machines to the forensic science laboratory in Pretoria worth R80 000. From DNA collection to analysis, equipment worth R4-million is required.

We rely on corporate sponsorship. We are raising hundreds of thousands of rands — and would like to raise millions. Our target is never-ending: there’s always something the forensic science laboratory needs.

What does an image-capturing machine do?

It’s a high-resolution digital camera used to capture the image of evidence. It photographs the evidence in its original state for use in a court of law.

As important as the DNA profile is to secure a conviction, it is imperative to present irrefutable supporting evidence when having to testify in a court case. This is where this machine comes in: to indicate the original condition of an object from which a DNA profile was retrieved — or even to capture the condition of a package containing evidence submitted for forensic examination, to indicate that the package was sealed properly at the time it was received.

This proves that no tampering with the evidence took place, and that DNA profiles obtained from the evidence may be accepted as valid.

Can you point to instances where the DNA Project is already starting to have an effect on investigations? Have criminals who might otherwise have escaped justice been successfully tried?

This is a difficult question. The value of the database is realised over time; it is not something that is immediate. As we go on, so we shall see progress. (But) it is irrefutable that the use of DNA evidence holds promise for all aspects of the criminal justice system.

How have the officials who are involved with forensic science in South Africa responded to your campaign?

Very well. They have appreciated the fact that we are assisting them. They are doing a great job, but they have limitations. — IPS

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Moyiga Nduru
Guest Author

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