Archive for the ‘Crime Scenes’ Category


8,000 Men Asked to Provide DNA for 1999 Murder Case in The Netherlands

Monday, October 15th, 2012

September 2012
(The following article first appeared in DNA Forensics: News and Information about DNA Databases)

During a press conference in Drachten, in Friesland,  a Northern province of  The Netherlands, the public prosecution’s office announced that approximately 8,000 men have been asked to provide DNA samples to help solve the 1999 murder of Marianne Vaatstra, a 16-year-old girl.  Miss Vaatstra’s body was found in a field in her town, Zwaagwesteinde. All of the men that were asked to give a DNA sample live within three miles of where the murder occurred, an area that encompasses 12 villages. Law enforcement officials also stated that no person asked to give their DNA will be forced to comply. This is the largest DNA Dragnet of its kind ever undertaken in the Netherlands.

The Dutch television crime journalist Peter R de Vries, made a recent documentary about the Vaatstra murder.  De Vries became well-known in the United States through his documentary about the  disappearance of the 18 year-old American student Natalee Holloway in Aruba in 2005. De Vries was able to secretly video tape Joran Van der Sloot, confessing to another man that he had killed Natalee Holloway.
De Vries produced a TV-documentary this past May giving information about a Playboy cigarette lighter found in Miss Vaatstra’s bag which contained DNA traces that matched the traces found on the schoolgirl’s body. Tips following the broadcast showed the lighter was on sale in the local area at the time, including in the village of Zwaagwesteinde where she lived.

Marianne Vaatstra

Marianne Vaatstra

After the press conference, Marianne’s father, Mr. Bauke Vaatstra made an emotional appeal for men to take part in the investigation. “This is the last means of finding Marianne’s killer,” he said. “Please give your DNA.”  The National Forensic Institute in The Netherlands, is also carrying out further research in the Dutch national DNA database to try to find relatives of the probable killer. Law enforcement is looking at Familial DNA, as they suspect that the real killer will not come forward to give a DNA sample.

Read related articles here.

‘I was bored, so I raped’

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Of the 37 783 prisoners released under the presidents special remission in the spirit of Freedom Day, 47 are already back in jail and facing charges including murder, attempted murder and rape reports Botho Molosankwe

PN prisoners1

A prisoner who benefited from President Jacob Zuma’s special remission of sentences was re-arrested after he broke into a woman’s house and raped her – because he was bored.

The man had been free for only two weeks when he re-offended.

The man, who was released from a prison in Wepener, Free State, on May 8, allegedly committed the housebreaking and rape offences on May 22.

According to the Department of Correctional Services, the man said he had committed the crimes because he had nothing to do.

The man, who cannot be named as he has yet to plead, is one of the 37 783 prisoners who were released from various prisons across the country following Zuma’s special remission of sentence to certain categories of prisoners.

However, within a month of their early release, 47 are already back behind bars and facing charges of murder, attempted murder, rape, robbery, assault, kidnapping, theft, stock theft, possession of drugs, possession of stolen goods and housebreaking.

The re-offenders, when asked why they had committed the crimes so soon after their release, blamed boredom, homelessness, hunger, poverty, drug addiction and unemployment.

Another man, who had initially been arrested for assault, committed murder just after being released. The Limpopo, man had been out for only two days.

“He is alleged to have gone home and found his girlfriend with another man. A fight broke out and he is alleged to have killed the girlfriend’s lover.

One man who was serving time for attempted murder when he was released was re-arrested on charges of committing the same offence.

Another man, who was on parole for housebreaking and theft, was arrested just a few hours after being granted his freedom. Khumalo said that as part of his parole conditions, correctional services officials used to check on him periodically at home.

On May 9, they told him that he was now a free man and would no longer be getting visits from them. A few hours later, the man was behind bars for housebreaking and theft, again.

Khumalo said that although the prisoners were released out of a gesture of humanity, those who had re-offended had spat in the face of the government that had released them.

“And other departments are affected too. The police have to hunt them and take them to police stations. The Justice Department has to invest time and effort to bring the suspects to book and sentence them. And we, as Correctional Services, have to update our records,” Khumalo pointed out.

Correctional Services is expected to conduct pre-release assessments and run pre-release preparation programmes.

Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said Zuma had “noted what had happened and would take that into consideration as we move forward”.


The DNA Project  cannot help but surmise how many more of the 37, 783 ex-cons released may be committing more crimes – but we have no way of detecting them because we have no legislation which mandates that all arrestees or at the very least convicted offenders, have their DNA profile entered onto a national DNA database. Instead, because of the delay in passing this vital legislation, these criminals have been released with little opportunity to protect the public when they return to crime. DNA Databases have been proven to not only identify the most violent criminals, but have also served to exonerate those wrongly arrested and convicted. If these individuals who had been released had had their DNA taken and entered onto the database, they would be identified at an earlier stage and more reliably than ever before. So, because of the fact that we have to wait until the DNA legislation is passed, South Africans have just been given 37,783 more reasons to ask the Portfolio Committee on Police to finally pass the DNA database legislation.

Touch DNA: Useful in Solving ‘Volume’ Crimes

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

What is Touch DNA?

Touch DNA is a forensic method for analysing DNA left at the scene of a crime. It is called “touch DNA” because it only requires very small samples, for example, skin cells left on an object after it has been touched or handled. Touch DNA analysis only requires seven or eight cells from the outermost layer of human skin.(Wikipedia)

This relatively new forensic technique of using “touch DNA” is being employed in several countries to help solve those crimes which have  previously been too difficult or impossible to solve. This new technique is mostly used for investigating property or high volume crimes and involves testing evidence such as an object or broken glass for “touch DNA” – microscopic skin cells containing DNA that naturally rub off when an object, such as a cell phone or steering wheel, is touched.

Even gloves don’t let them get away with it!

Touch DNA technology can even be used if the suspect was wearing gloves at the time of committing the crime because there’s a high likelihood that the skin cells were transferred onto the gloves when the perpetrator was putting them on. Property and other nonviolent crimes are often overlooked in South Africa due to the fact that no violence was involved or due to a lack of physical evidence. Or so it seems….. However, the SA Forensic Science Lab recognises that not only do criminals have a ‘career path’ which often starts with less serious crimes, but more violent criminals also dabble in other types of crimes, such as housebreaking. This is why they advocate for the use of Touch DNA in South Africa. The rationale behind collecting DNA from ‘volume’ crimes would be to include these DNA profiles onto a DNA database where the chance of a match to a known suspect would be  increased.

A disposable vacuum collection system used for the forensic collection of liquids, fibers, powders, cellular material, blood, urine, and saliva. The Nib attachment allows the vacuum device to collect Touch DNA samples and other trace evidence

A disposable vacuum collection system used for the forensic collection of liquids, fibers, powders, cellular material, blood, urine, and saliva. The Nib attachment allows the vacuum device to collect Touch DNA samples and other trace evidence

This type of technology could be used  effectively in hijackings as there will be a large number of physical clues left behind in a vehicle if employing ‘Touch DNA’ as a methodology to collect evidence from these types of crimes.

Collecting  the best samples

In order to take advantage of touch DNA, it is also important  for the CSI to collect the right samples. This technique can be used on samples taken from guns, steering wheels, cell phones, glass, plastic, wood, cloth, fabric, to name a few. It does however require discretion inso far as focusing on the places a suspect is likely to have touched. Eg, in the case of a hijacking, taking samples from the entire dashboard would not be prudent.  Instead, the CSI should focus on processing the steering wheel; the door and the door handles; the rear view mirror; the gear stick; the controls for the windows, the stereo and the air conditioner.

If the crime scene is indoors, observe the scene. Did the suspect try to cover up by washing his hands? If so, tell the CSI to take samples from the faucet and sink surfaces. Look for bathroom or kitchen towels or discarded paper towels. (BUT DON’T TOUCH THEM!) Tell the CSI to remember to process the doors and windows that a suspect may have used to enter or exit the property/crime scene. Ensure that any clothing that may belong to the suspect is tested for touch DNA too. Finally, look for any items that are out of place—chances are, the suspect was the one who moved them!

If you are a non essential, non forensic person (in other words EVERYONE OTHER THAN A QUALIFIED CRIME SCENE INVETIGATOR!), keep out of the crime scene and take notes should you have observed anything which the CSI may be able to use to assist in his or her investigation of the crime scene.

Remember as always DNA CSI!

Vanessa Lynch

Please contact Maya Moodley at should you wish to benefit from a free DNA Awareness workshop in your area.

Criminal Foiled By Discarded Water Bottle

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

I came across the below story yesterday when reading about interesting cases in the quarterly Forensic DNAResource Report. It caught my eye not because I think catching a petty thief in the USA is a particularly serious offence – but because at the scene of my father’s murder in Johannesburg, SA,  the perpetrators who shot my dad just prior to breaking into our family home, had been drinking brandy and coke in the garden out of an old coke bottle. This bottle, which contained valuable DNA evidence as to who was present at the crime scene when my father was killed, was later discarded by the police. When I asked why they had done that, they said to me that ‘we do not have the technology in this country to uplift DNA evidence from the bottle’. This is not only untrue, but illustrates the tragedy of destroying valuable evidence from a crime scene which could ultimately have convicted the people who murdered my father. There was only one chance to collect and preserve that evidence, and it was lost. Forever. We can never go back – and as such, that crucial link to my father’s killers, lost with it.

This is why I am so passionate about creating crime scene awareness in South Africa. We need to all become forensically aware and prevent this type of thing from happening over and over again. The rationale behind this objective is that without the proper preservation and collection of valuable DNA and other forensic evidence left at a crime scene, the opportunity to link the perpetrator to the crime committed, will be lost.

Don’t let it happen. Ask us how you can be part of the solution. If you or your community/group/workforce are interested in receiving DNA Awareness training or know of any group who would benefit from this information, please contact us via and she will send you the necessary information.

Here is the story:

Police: Year-old Boca Grande burglary solved

July 28, 2011

Charlotte County Sheriff’s detectives say they have solved a year-old case thanks to a DNA match of the burglar who left behind a bottle of water.

A home in Boca Grande on the Charlotte County side was burgled in June 2010. Police say the burglar entered through a second-story window and stole televisions, three dirt bikes and a Volkswagen Euro Van. The van was recovered in Sarasota County but the three dirt bikes were not recovered.

Crime scene technicians located fingerprints and found a bottle of water in the home. On July 13, police say the water bottle tested positive for Eric William Griffith, whose details were already on the database.

Detectives arrested Griffith at his home Tuesday and charged him with burglary, grand theft motor vehicle and grand theft.

DNA in the Courtroom

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

If you are reading this blog, then we have to assume that at the very least, you have recognised that DNA profiling in a criminal context has fast become the most powerful criminal justice tool used in the world today and is increasingly vital to ensuring accuracy and fairness in the criminal justice system. The DNA Project certainly recognises this fact and in its national effort to create DNA awareness in SA, we have extended our awareness campaign beyond just the crime scene, to include awareness in our justice system. Without convictions, all the hard work at ground level may also be set to fail, because it is not used expeditiously in a case where it could potentially provide one of the strongest forms of evidence to link the suspect to the crime scene.

However, to ensure DNA’s optimum use in criminal proceedings, it is imperative that criminal justice litigators are properly conversant with the scientific basis and presentation of such evidence, as well as with its potential usefulness in criminal cases. As such, the DNA Project is hosting and funding the its first Legal workshop tomorrow for the Western Cape Branch of the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority). Over 60 prosecutors will be present as well as representatives from the Legal Aid Board and the Department of Justice. The aim of this course is to form a bridge between the science of DNA and the legal aspects of DNA evidence. It will provide criminal justice litigators with the necessary information not only to understand the significance of DNA evidence, but also to successfully adduce, recognize and if necessary, challenge the validity of such evidence in court.

Below is a brief outline of the issues which will be covered in the full day course:

Part One: Overview of DNA Profiling – Prof. Valerie Corfield

A single cigarette butt left at the scene of a robbery and murder has led to the conviction of a 24-year-old man

1.1 The science underlying DNA profiling — what does a profile look like, how does a DNA database work for criminal intelligence and the latest developments in this field.
1.2 Collection of samples for DNA Purposes: sample taking in terms of the current CPA and proposed sample taking in terms of the new Draft Bill
1.3 SAPS FSL Disclosure Policies

Part Two: The DNA Bill – Ms Vanessa Lynch

4.1 An overview of current legislation regulating DNA collection, analysis and use in the courtroom
4.2 An introduction to the draft DNA Bill and its impact on the way in which DNA profiles will be regulated in SA

Part Three: DNA in the Courtroom – Dr Andra le Roux Kemp
3.1 The significance of a Match and whether it ought to be challenged
3.2 Constitutionality of section 212
3.3 Evaluation of evidence: the possible grounds upon which challenges to the weight of DNA evidence can be made
3.4 Defense and prosecution fallacies

Part Four: Pre-trial Issues – Lt Col. Sharlene Otto
2.1 Interpreting the lab report
2.2 Meaning of a match
2.3 Important Questions to ask in preparation for trail

The presenters:

Professor Valerie Corfield,  BSc Hons Botany (Bristol, UK); MSc Cell Biology (Wright Sate University, USA); PhD Genetics (University of the Witwatersrand).Medical scientist, Department of Medical Biosciences, Stellenbosch University. Professor Corfield’s research focus is the molecular genetics of inherited heart disease. She has published extensively and is rated as a scientist with international recognition by the National Research Foundation, for which she serves on several committees. Now semi-retired from her academic position, she delivers lectures and develops and presents interactive workshops which engage the general public in a greater understanding of science and appreciation of its societal implications. Activities include DNA and its applications in forensics. She holds a Wellcome Trust International Engagement award in biomedicine and presents workshops for The DNA Project, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement and Science Centres across South Africa.

Ms Vanessa Lynch BA (University of Kwa-Zulu Natal) LLB (UCT), Founder and Executive Director of the DNA Project. Ms. Lynch qualified as an attorney from UCT in 1993. She left her position as a Commercial attorney in 2005 in order to undertake the work of the DNA Project on a full-time basis and is now the Executive Director of this organisation. She founded the DNA Project following the brutal murder of her father in 2004 after seeking a way in which to meaningfully contribute towards the alleviation of crime in South Africa in a manner which was significant, achievable, tangible and would ultimately have a long term impact towards negating the high crime rate in S.A. An assessment of successful criminal justice systems all pointed to one obvious solution: the abatement of crime in other countries was ultimately achieved through the implementation and development of a National DNA Criminal Intelligence Database. In an effort to emulate this success in South Africa, she established a non-profit organisation to practically address the crime situation in South Africa through the expanded use of DNA evidence in conjunction with South Africa’s National DNA Database.

Dr Andra le Roux-Kemp
BA, LLB (Stell), CML (UNISA), LLD (Stell). Adv of the High Court of South Africa; Part-time lecturer at Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Law. Dr Andra le Roux-Kemp obtained the BA, LLB and LLD degrees from Stellenbosch University and a postgraduate certificate in Medicine and Law from UNISA. Her primary area of interest and expertise relate to particular themes in Criminal Justice and Medical- and Health Law. She has published both locally and is the author of the recently published book Law, Power and the Doctor-Patient Relationship: A Legal Perspective (2011). She is a member of the South African Medico-Legal Society (SAMLS) and the Criminological and Victimological Society of South Africa (CRIMSA) and teaches a LLM module in Legal Medicine annually at Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Law.

Lieutenant Colonel Sharlene Otto: CHIEF FORENSIC ANALYST and REPORTING OFFICER – Biology Unit of the Forensic Science Laboratory (SAPS, Cape Town) Lt Col. Otto has a B. Sc.-degree, with Botany and Zoology as majors from the UFS as well as  a Higher Teaching Diploma and has been attached to the Biology Unit of the Forensic Science Laboratory since November 1993.  Since that time she has received intensive training in serology and various DNA-technique, statistics, STR’s and has attended and presented at both national and international DNA conferences. Sharelene has been involved in the DNA analysis of biological evidentiary samples since 1996 and since November 1997 she has been involved in the STR-analysis of these samples. During October 2003. Lt Col. Otto takes part in both internal and external proficiency tests on a regular basis all of which have completed them all successfully.  In total, Lt Col. Otto has 25 years experience in the biological sciences and is one of South Africa’s most experienced and valuable DNA Forensic Experts.

The DNA Project has funded this DNA Awareness workshop with funds raised to promote DNA Awareness in SA. The DNA Project wishes to thank the Change a Life Trust and Juta for their kind sponsorship towards this workshop.

For more information contact

Murder Mystery

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Using the Murder Mystery genre in a fun-filled way to look at the serious issue of how a national DNA database can help fight crime in South Africa

The venue was Scifest Africa 2011 in Grahamstown, the plot….murder. This was the murder mystery evening played out Scifest this year.

Members of the audience question Mr Rival's heavily pregnant girlfriend Ms Wanda Urjob

Members of the audience question Mr Rival's heavily pregnant girlfriend Ms Wanda Urjob

Imagine this- it was the end of a long day at the Science-4-All Mega-Xploratorium (S4-AMX), Mr Knowledge O.F. Csi, the conscientious security officer, was doing his rounds after the last visitors had left. He paused outside Dr Noall X. Plor’s office – his finely tuned instinct told him something was wrong. He knocked, no answer, yet he knew that Dr Plor had not left the building; cautiously he opened the door. The scene that greeted him confirmed his foreboding, Dr Plor lay spread-eagled across his desk, a broken, blood-smeared wine glass lay in front of his outstretched lifeless hand, a strange smell of burning wafted towards Mr Csi.

Switch to the auditorium at Scifest Africa 2011 in Grahamstown, where an expectant real-live audience of school learners, teachers and other members of the public had come to take part in a Murder Mystery evening. Also there was an excited cast of scientists and science centre friends from around South Africa, all would be-actors and extroverts who would act out the strange and twisted goings on of the S4-AMX on the murderous night in May.

Mr Cantseeit and Dr Fori Ensik each had their own suspicions

Mr Cantseeit and Dr Fori Ensik each had their own suspicions

Professor Valerie Corfield, who created this novel way to look at crime and the use of DNA profiling to solve it, explained to the audience the science behind popular series like “CSI” and “Solving it”. She talked about the power of a national DNA database in linking suspects with their crimes and securing convictions. She also asked the audience to think about some of the societal, legal and ethical issues this technology may raise. Suddenly, a cell phone rang urgently, a message was relayed to a visibly shaken Prof Corfield – she paused, and then announced the shocking news, Dr Plor was dead. A sob from one of the audience – it was Dr Plor’s wife Mrs Angela St Clare Plor – known by many as Angst – and played by Irene of Pretoria University’s Science Centre.

The audience relaxed as they realised that this was all part of the evening’s entertainment and they strained forward, it was time to start solving the crime. The players were introduced, everyone was delighted to hear that Mama Precious Ramotswe, of the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, was visiting from Botswana and would be happy to give advice. Curious, everyone went to the scene of the crime –which had been taped off by the well-informed and efficient Mr Csi. They surveyed the evidence and, armed with some background information about the characters in the Xploratorium that evening, they began to question the suspects.

It seemed that just about everyone had a motive to want to see the last of the hard drinking, womanising, financially insecure and increasingly inefficient Dr Plor. Had Mrs Plor had enough of his behavior? Why was she so friendly with Mr Ivor Grudge who was wrongfully dismissed from the Xploratorium? Was this Mrs Arch Rival’s chance to take over the struggling S4-AMX? Who was Mr Q. Rios Rival’s biological father and what was his pregnant and ambitious girlfriend (Ms Wanda Urjob)’s role in the events of the tragic evening? What financial shenanigans had the forensic accountant Ms Penny Fiscus uncovered and why was her partner the forensic scientist Dr Fori Ensik so jealous to finding her talking to Dr Plor earlier in the evening? Could Ms Twitter N. Bisted throw some light onto the jealousies simmering beneath the surface? Did socialite Mrs Phyll-Anne Thropicopolos and her security advisor Mr Hev E. Hitman know more than they were saying and did her friend the politician Mr Grey V. Trane have something to hide? Did the bitter and angry Mr I Les Cantseeit, who lost an eye at S4-AMX, get a chance to speak to Dr Plor? Why was the cleaning lady Mrs Busi Makleena so visibly shaken that evening?

Mr Hev E. Hitman shrugged a lot - he knew nothing

Mr Hev E. Hitman shrugged a lot - he knew nothing

The Murder Mystery was edu-tainment like you don’t get taught at school or in the science pages of the newspaper; Dr Fori Ensik could explain more about DNA forensics, Ms Fiscus could talk about forensic accounting and Mama Precious was there to share wisdom and common sense. Mr Grudge had an identical twin, he wanted to know how DNA profiling dealt with that and Mr Hev E. Hitman was not happy that his DNA was on a database already because of his previous “misdemeanors”. Mr Rival explained paternity testing and how he went about getting the samples (rightly or wrongly?) Mr Trane gave the politician’s answers to where South Africa’s national DNA database stands.

The audience questioned, probed, sought answers; small groups discussed their suspicions and went back to ask more – now and again pausing to sample some of the tasty snacks on offer! The suspects blustered, prevaricated, lied and pointed fingers at each other.

Finally everyone reassembled and wrote down who they thought did it, did they act alone, why did they do it and how did they do it? The would-be Horatio Cane’s ideas were checked, did anyone have it right? Yes, a few detectives had “sussed” it out correctly and justice would be served.

And you the reader will want to know those answers too – but you will have to come to the next Murder Mystery evening to find out who-dun-it…….

Professor Valerie Corfield

What the criminals think

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

What do people who have their profiles on International DNA databases think?

Vanessa has recently written about the Darwin debate that we were involved in at UCT. The debate highlighted many social and ethical issues regarding forensic DNA databases. Interestingly, soon thereafter a friend forwarded me two relevant articles that looked at some of these issues from an entirely different perspective. Both articles discussed research into at what convicted persons thought about having their profiles kept on a forensic database. The first was written by Machado et al (2011) after interviewing 31 Portuguese prisoners. These prisoners were between 22 and 49 years of age and had been convicted of a variety of crimes including homicide, rape, drug trafficking, burglary and driving without a permit. The second study conducted by Stackhouse et al (2010) looked at a slightly different group of people – they interviewed 84 young people between the ages of 15 and 19. 72 had been arrested and had their profiles retained on the UK National DNA database. 58 of them had been found guilty of offences ranging from grievous bodily harm and assault to driving offences.

What was especially interesting about the findings of these studies was that the majority of people (those interviewed that have their DNA profiles on a national database) think that their profiles should be there. They also believe that even if someone is found “innocent” and is acquitted then their profiles should be retained on the database. So whilst politicians and human rights groups contend that profiles should not be kept on a database as this infringes on peoples right to privacy, prisoners argue that as the technology associated with forensic DNA analysis is so reliable and accurate, they would prefer for their profiles to be retained on a database. Their reasoning is that they believe that if police have their profiles on record then they can easily be eliminated from investigations following their release from prison. They felt that having their profiles on the database would actually contribute towards protecting them from police automatically assuming that as ex-convicts they would be involved with the perpetration of similar crimes. One young person claimed “If they’ve got your DNA on there just leave it, I mean he knows he ain’t a criminal so just leave it there…. Just to prove again that it wasn’t me.” Another person thought that having your profile removed may actually seem suspicious – “Why would you want it taken off, unless you were up to something…” This is in agreement with the British Home Office’s opinion that “persons who do not go on to commit an offence have no reason to fear the retention of the information”.

Both these articles referred to an earlier publication written by Prainsack and Kitzberger in 2009 where 26 convicted offenders in Austria were interviewed. All but two of the offenders viewed national DNA databases in a positive light. Their reasons included: (1) It helped to catch serious offenders such as rapists, murderers and paedophiles (2) They helped prove innocence (3) They forced police to carry out proper investigations and not to just arrest people who had previously committed similar offences. This study showed that many of those interviewed concurred with the fact that if they had committed an offence then they should be held accountable and that they deserved to be on the database– “If somebody does something, then they should bear the consequences”.

The results of these studies highlight the need to determine what all sectors of the public, including those already on a database, think about what profiles should be entered onto a database and when if ever that information should be removed. Food for thought …….what do you think?


A Disappointing Debate – what do you think?

Monday, May 16th, 2011

For those of you who may have attended the debate at UCT last week Wednesday, you may share my frustration and disappointment insofar as my adversary failed, in my opinion, to address the issues at hand which were: the societal and ethical implications of a National DNA Database in South Africa. Whilst I commend Ms Naidoo for standing up against police brutality and corruption, this was not the topic of debate for that evening, nor was it in any way relevant to the question of which types of profiles should be held on a DNA database and why.

Poonitha Naidoo, Vanessa Lynch & Carolyn Hancock

Poonitha Naidoo, Vanessa Lynch & Carolyn Hancock

As such,  I believe we lost a valuable opportunity for serious, logical and rational debate over an issue which may have far reaching consequences in South Africa . The problem is, to date, no-one seems to be able to come forward and present an argument against the implementation of a criminal intelligence DNA database, which makes any sense at all.

Whilst I admit that I may be biased in favour of the value of a DNA Database for crime resolution (in conjunction with the vast majority of countries in the world with developed DNA Databases!), I am not unfamiliar nor insensitive to some of the privacy concerns of human rights groups. It must also be noted that the DNA Project concedes that the actual DNA reference sample (as opposed to the DNA profile) should be destroyed once a full DNA profile has been obtained and, that there should be an exit mechanism in place to expunge profiles which have not resulted in a conviction following arrest.

As I see it, there are five areas of concern amongst civil rights activists, which I raised for argument in the debate, namely:

In the first place we must ensure that we differentiate between a DNA sample and a DNA profile. 
The physical sample consists of the bodily substance collected from a crime scene or person; the DNA profile is the digitized information that is stored electronically on the Database. Whilst the sample holds the genetic profile, once a DNA profile has been obtained, the DNA sample can be destroyed, provided that it is not a crime scene sample which is evidence and must be kept in the same way as other crime scene evidence.
Of note is that the DNA markers which make up the digital profile in South Africa, are specifically chosen for forensic use because they do not reveal any details about age, ethnicity, race, appearance or medical conditions. You therefore cannot link a DNA profile to an individual’s medical history nor does it point to genetic disorders or susceptibilities. In fact a mughsot tells you more about the person than a DNA profile; as too does your id number. If then we concede that the physical sample is not retained, but only the digital profile, and if access and use to it is strictly confined, then the intrusion into privacy is not particularly grave, while the societal gains in solving and deterring appalling crimes in South Africa through a criminal intelligence database, are very significant.

Vanessa Lynch debating at UCT last week

Vanessa Lynch debating at UCT last week

My second point was in relation to the way in which a sample is collected. Currently, due to the interpretation of the 1977 Criminal Procedures Act, a registered nurse or medical practitioner has to take a full vial blood to generate a sample for DNA analysis. The draft DNA bill calls for the collection of a simple cheek swab/pin prick by a police officer.  No country in the world mandates that samples be taken by blood or medical personnel – Why? It is exceedingly expensive, dangerous and scientifically unnecessary and it has certainly never been challenged as unconstitutional or invasive. Ms Naidoo perceives this act however as a grave invasion of privacy. But, I argue that the mere act of taking of samples from suspects is a reasonable and  proportionate response to serious crime.

Given that this technology is here to stay, as a crucial means of solving crimes, the question is… who should be on the database and why? It is generally agreed, that convicted offenders and crime scene profiles should be retained. The main argument is then around the retention of such material in cases where a suspect is subsequently acquitted or the charge is discontinued….. which leads us to the next point…

Our contention is that there should exist a retention framework for profiles which do not result in a conviction. In the pivotal case of S vs Marper – The European Courts of Human Right forced a change of policy in England that the holding of a DNA profiles from persons regardless of outcome of arrest was disproportionate – a retention framework was proposed which is still being debated.
 Whilst the value of retained profiles from suspects who were subsequently acquitted has been shown to be considerable, there is no other country which allows a blanket retention policy of such profiles, but a retention framework makes sense.
Significantly, in South Africa, a recently passed law allows searching across all the fingerprint databases – HANIS, E-NATIS and AFIS. If we accept that the fingerprint is a unique identifier, just as the DNA profile is, then we are currently already allowing supposedly ‘innocent’ fingerprints to be searched for the purpose of generating a hit or match. We must remember that the presence of a fingerprint on a database does not constitute a criminal record – it is for reference and comparative purposes only. If a hit is generated then it is considered a LEAD in the investigation – it is not an automatic guilty verdict as many seem to suggest. With the high rate of recidivism in SA, it may be proportionate to consider a retention framework whereby a profile is kept for a specified period (in the draft Bill, 5 years has been proposed) after which, if there is no further arrest during that time, it is automatically expunged.

Perhaps then Civil liberties activists seem mostly opposed to the development of a national database on the grounds that state officials might somehow be able to abuse ordinary citizens by using the data that would be contained in it? The argument that information can be abused pre-supposes that the DNA profiles reveal genetic information which is commercially valuable. This is untrue. It is simply a unique identifier. There is no realistic way I can think of in which a government can abuse a Database nor has any case ever been reported of this occurring. But perhaps some reader out there has different views on this, and if so, I would be interested in hearing them. Moreover, the draft Bill provides for strict safeguards and penalties to ensure that DNA profiles are used only for the purpose related to the detection of crime, the investigation of an offence or the conduct of a prosecution.

If a Database is assiduously maintained and strictly controlled in order to strengthen our Criminal Justice System (CJS) and help our forces of law apprehend and prosecute habitual offenders, then we should support the expansion and development of this crime fighting tool in a country which is being held to ransom by a small minority of criminals.

The last point brings me to duty of the State to protect the public from crime. However, it is recognised that in doing so, the State also needs to protect certain ethical values such as liberty, autonomy, privacy, informed consent and equality. Sometimes these obligations conflict and then a balance must be struck between the right to privacy and the right to safety and security. In appropriate circumstances, some of these rights need to be restricted in the public interest and to protect the rights of others.  Legislation should therefore seek to find an adequate balance between the interests of society and the interests of the individual. If we agree that the purpose of the CJS is to permit everyone to go about their daily lives without fear of harm to person or property, then surely it is in everyone’s interest that serious crime should be properly investigated and prosecuted.  As one of the most important obligations of the state is to protect the rights of its citizens, a DNA Database does this and this more than makes up for any minor privacy rights violated by mandatory DNA databasing. In other words, freedom of action has to be restricted in appropriate circumstances – i.e. the response of the state to take action to prevent people from killing or harming one another will inevitably involve some restriction of freedom of action. Laws by their very nature do this (restrict freedom of action) but are in place to ensure that the greater good is achieved.

My final point on the issue is a Utilitarian  one – in other words, what is the VALUE of the science? 
In a country which has one of the highest crime rates,  lowest conviction rates and highest rate of recidivism in the world- the value of the science, in this case, the DNA database,  is very, very high.
So, let us not sacrifice the good for the perfect – if we put proper safeguards in place and maximise the full potential of this powerful investigative tool, we will be doing a good thing – which surely is an aim worthy of pursuit?

What do you think?


Database for DNA key to full sex crime law

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

The below article makes for interesting reading insofar as demonstrating the power of a DNA database as well as the implications of not having proper legislation in place – it illustrates that an expanded DNA Database strengthens criminal investigations which in turn provides a safer environment, safeguards the rights of law-abiding citizens and improves trial efficiency. This not only brings comfort to victims and their families, and promotes fairness and justice but also clears innocent suspects and reduces miscarriages of justice.. . What is most poignant is the writer’s observation that long documentation processes, poor administrative efficiency and bureaucracy which have prevented the enactment of proper DNA legislation, are tantamount to being “accomplices” to the murder of the young girl in this story, and many more to come.

How tragic too, that as I write this, I feel that I am preaching to the converted (ie the people who read this blog), when the real ‘accomplices’ in South Africa hold us and future victims to ransom by their lack of efficiency, bureaucracy and ignorance in failing to pass the DNA legislation so desperately needed in SA.

Database for DNA key to full sex crime law

By Sandy Yeh

A junior-high school girl in Yunlin County was recently raped and murdered. A repeat sex offender who had just been released on parole is suspected of committing these acts. As a result of the ensuing public anger, we may finally have a chance to break through the blockade of so-called “human rights groups” that are opposed to amending the Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act. If approved, judges will be able to follow the example of Megan’s Law in the US and decide to publish the names and photos of repeat sexual offenders as well as the nature of their crime in order to avoid similar tragedies.

Following several child assault crimes that have highlighted the flaws of the act and the rise of the “White Rose” movement in September last year, the legislature is now expected to pass the amendment. Still, the information and monitoring of sex offenders alone will not be enough to prevent them from committing crimes again. Nor will they put an end to sex assault crimes. Just as the “protection order” in the Domestic Violence Prevention Act will not prevent victims of domestic violence from being abused, complementary measures are required. In this case, the most important measure is building a DNA database on sex offenders.

A US newspaper recently reported a similar sexual assault case that happened in Maryland in July 2003, though the suspect was only arrested in Wisconsin years later. Just like the Taiwanese girl, the victim was 13 years old at the time of the crime. The difference is that she survived and the police could take complete samples of the suspect’s DNA. It took some time, but they were able to make a breakthrough seven years later thanks to the strengthening of the DNA database as a result of legislative amendments. When a suspect was arrested for selling marijuana and ordered to submit a DNA sample, a match was found.

In 1994, the US passed the DNA Identification Act to provide legal grounds for DNA collection. In 2000, it passed the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act, authorizing the FBI to integrate DNA databases in different US states and organizations, including a DNA database of officially convicted criminals, missing people and their families, and unidentified corpses. In 2005, it passed the DNA Fingerprint Act, integrating criminals’ DNA and fingerprint data. Last year, it passed the Katie Sepich Enhanced DNA Collection Act to impose DNA collection on all suspects except in the case of a few misdemeanors. By gradually enhancing the laws, the US’ DNA database grew from 460,000 items in 2000 to 2.03 million in 2004 and 8.64 million last year. The number of cases solved as a result has increased more than 100-fold.

Katie Sepich, at the age of 22 was raped and murdered

Katie Sepich, at the age of 22 was raped and murdered

These results were achieved thanks to the US’ employment of modern technology. By strengthening its criminal investigation with the help of the expanded database, the US can now provide a safer environment, safeguard the rights of law-abiding citizens and improve trial efficiency. This brings comfort to victims and their families, and promotes fairness and justice. Furthermore, the strengthened DNA database and improved matching could clear innocent suspects and reduce miscarriages of justice.

Just like the obstacles to the amendment of Taiwan’s Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act, the amendment of the DNA Sampling Regulations has been delayed since passing its first reading in the legislature in 2008. When the public says the long documentation process, poor administrative efficiency and bureaucracy were “accomplices” to the murder of the girl in Yunlin, one wonders if anyone has looked into whether the legislature is the reason why the law remains stalled.

Exciting DNA Forensic Events happening this week (22-25 Mar 2011)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

There are a number of Forensic DNA Conferences and Seminars being held throughout South Africa this week (22-25 Mar 2011) which I will be attending, ranging from Victim Empowerment through the use of DNA to establishing a DNA Innocence Project in SA to unleashing the power of a criminal intelligence DNA database in SA. All of these seminars and events will be of value and interest to anyone involved in DNA forensics in SA .

I have posted details of all these on the events page – click here for more information.

Hope to see you there!

with thanks