Archive for the ‘In the Media’ Category

 

Carte Blanche ‘Catch-Up’ with Vanessa

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017

Watch Vanessa Lynch’s recent ‘catch-up’ interview with Carte Blanche‘s Laura Byrne at the 4th Annual Forensic Services Conference wherein she discusses the continued work of the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board (NFOEB) and the implementation of the DNA Act.

To view the programme segment please click here.

I Am Woman: Thank you!

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

I have been inundated with messages of love and support since the showing of the below documentary on the work of the DNA Project.

It was not a journey I undertook alone and thank you to my amazing DNA Project family for your passion and unwavering support over the last decade.

In particular the documentary pays such beautiful tribute to my Dad, Johnny Lynch – it is the first time I have seen my Dad ‘live’ in video since his death (we didn’t realise my brother had these videos…) and it took my breath away — for my daughter and my family sitting around me, it felt as if he was in the room with us and you could have heard a pin drop as the tears fell upon our cheeks.

My Dad has always been my ‘silent’ partner in this journey, having not chosen to use his name in my work, because that was what my Dad was always about — he always told me that true charity is when you give something of yourself but never tell anyone about it — well in some ways that was what he did and in this programme it was his time to shine and I am so glad that his story was told, even though I know he would still be humble about it!

In loving memory of the true hero in this story, my dearest Dad, John Lynch

~ Vanessa

Thank you to Lisa Chait and Lauren Groenewald together with the whole “I AM WOMAN” team. It was a real honour for our DNA Project family to be part of your inspirational programme.

I AM WOMAN LEAP OF FAITH is a South African television and online series presented by storyteller Lisa Chait. It features the lives and Leaps of Faith of remarkable women exploring how they stepped into brand new territory when faced with life’s greatest challenges and opportunities. Each episode uncovers the turning points and pivotal moments of change in their lives. We also explore where they turned to when the chips were down.

To learn more about the series or to view past episodes, please visit www.iamwomanseries.com

Some of the wonderful comments we received via our social media and emails – Thank you all for your very kind words of support:

“Dear Vanessa, Congratulations…. what a lovely documentary. Your family have every reason to be so very proud of you. Both Brian and I thought that every interview was excellent and both felt very humbled to be connected to such a remarkable achievement and woman. I just wish that neither of us, (you and I) had to experience the trauma that we did for this to happen. You will be in the history books! Lots of love, respect, and admiration” ~ Diana Thomson (Mike Thomson Change A Life Trust)

“I hope you are all feeling very proud of what you did and achieved… I smiled, I laughed, I cried, I felt happy, I felt sad, but above all, I felt blessed and privileged to know you all. Vee, you really are the champion and all your seconds along the way have walked / run the race with you. I know that for you the hero in this story is and always will be Johnny – for me, it’s all of you. God bless – take care – lots of love” ~ Carol xx

“I just wanted to share with you how touched I was by your story that was aired last night. Thank you for touching the hearts of many others in a time of great sorry and pain. What a lady!!!!!!!!!!!! Thought I must share with you how much it meant to me” ~ Elsabe

“I watched a program of you last night,I am woman. What you have done is amazing and is a lasting legacy. May God bless you for your strength and courage. Thank you from a South African dad” ~ Rudi

“You’re an amazing woman Vanessa. When unsolved cases of someone dear to us go unsolved, it’s heart breaking. We salute you and thank you for your “Leap of Faith”” ~ Colleen

“I have cried while watching this very poignant story. What an incredible person you are Vanessa. I am amazed at your dedication and tenacity. You deserve more recognition for your brilliant work. Well done” ~ Alison

“Was so incredibly emotional and inspirational to watch last night. So much respect for what you and the team are doing for the country. Thank you” ~ Marieka

“Really heartfelt, whilst informative all at the same time” ~ Nolwazi

#OscarPistorius’ murder conviction means his DNA will be placed on NFDD

Friday, December 4th, 2015

With the recent Supreme Court of Appeal’s recent ruling pronouncing ‪Oscar Pistorius‬ guilty of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013 and the overturning of his previous culpable homicide conviction, it is important to note that Oscar’s DNA will now have to be taken and his DNA profile placed onto our National Forensic DNA Database (NFDD) as a convicted offender where it will be retained indefinitely.

His DNA may well have already been taken as a result of his earlier culpable homicide conviction, as both are listed as a Schedule 8 offence under the new DNA Act, but this conviction was given before the Act was made fully operational on the 31st of January 2015.

Woman’s Day: Cape Town’s fearless females

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

A look at six trailblazing Mother City ladies… The following is an excerpt from Cape Town Magazine’s recent article ahead of Women’s Day which features six stellar women – one of whom is our very own Vanessa Lynch…

On Thursday, 9 August 1956, 20 000 women of all races came together to challenge an oppressive government and petition against legislation that required “non-whites” to carry a pass, an identification document designed to curtail freedom of movement during Apartheid. Since the fall of the regime in 1994, the day has been annually commemorated as Women’s Day to highlight the strength and resilience of women during the resistance.

More recently, the South African public holiday’s raison d’etre has broadened – it’s no longer just a celebration of a single act of solidarity, but a day devoted to a more general recognition of the spirit and accomplishment of women. Furthermore, in the past few years, the occasion has been used as a rallying point in the fight for women’s rights.

Rape, domestic abuse and issues relating to gender inequality are still way too prevalent in a country that has come so far in the fight against discrimination, and the need to use the holiday as an instrument of advocacy and to shine the spotlight on the savvy sisters defying norms is paramount.

So, while there are thousands of courageous ladies showing the world how absolutely amazing women can be, we’ve narrowed our list down to a few in specialist fields – namely: arts and culture, winemaking, altruism, construction, the culinary arts and management consulting – who are flying the flag for the bright, the brainy and the brilliant and serving as a source of inspiration for the masses.

VANNESA LYNCH: DNA Project Founder & Creative Director

Following the murder of her father in 2004 and the blatant disregard and destruction of evidence containing DNA by the police, community members and other first-on-crime scene responders, Vanessa Lynch began to seek ways in which to meaningfully contribute towards the alleviation of crime in South Africa.

Driven by her own traumatic experience, this extraordinary woman embarked on a journey (for over a decade) where she founded an organisation that aimed 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. Introduce the DNA Project.

Where some may not have been able to find the strength, this incredible woman did and because of her determination and resilience (and her ability to forge relationships with police and government), we now have a pioneering new DNA Act on our statute books: The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act 37 of 2013 (DNA Act), which came into law on January 27, 2014 and into effect early this year on January 31, 2015. It is now mandatory for all arrested and convicted scheduled eight offenders to be swabbed for DNA and the results stored in the DNA database.

Currently, Vanessa also sits on the National Forensic and Oversight Ethics Board as the Deputy Chair. What’s more, just as the DNA Project has developed the Forensic Honours Degree at the UFS, which is also offered at UCT, UWC, MGI and soon UKZN, they have also begun to develop a subject outline for a “DNA and the Law” course for law students in an attempt to bridge the gap between science and law. Furthermore, the Innocence Project of South Africa (IPSA) has also recently been restructured and will be driven by the DNAP, the Wits Justice Project and UWC as a tripartite partnership, should the organisations bid for funding be successful.

Leading Ladies in Vanessa’s Life: “My Grandmother taught me things about life and the universe that would have shocked most at the time but have had a profound effect on my life – she warned me about global warming in the 70’s! An eccentric, non-conventional and unforgettable woman (not always for the right reasons!) who was way beyond her time. Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and who went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. She started the Green Belt Movement – its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women – to date 30 million trees in Africa have been planted and  nearly 900,000 women in Africa have been helped. It took her one tree to plant a forest, a philosophy that I have always lived by and her achievement shows how that is in fact possible.”

Read more – To view the full article published in Cape Town Magazine featuring all six fearless Cape Town women, please click here.

SOURCE: Cape Town Magazine

Crime scene discovery – separating the DNA of identical twins

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Forensic scientist Dr Graham Williams uncovers one of the DNA’s longstanding mysteries

SINCE its first use in the 1980s – a breakthrough dramatised in recent [UK] ITV series Code of a Killer – DNA profiling has been a vital tool for forensic investigators.  Now researchers at the University of Huddersfield have solved one of its few limitations by successfully testing a technique for distinguishing between the DNA – or genetic fingerprint – of identical twins.

The probability of a DNA match between two unrelated individuals is about one in a billion.  For two full siblings, the probability drops to one-in-10, 000.  But identical twins present exactly the same DNA profile as each other and this has created legal conundrums when it was not possible to tell which of the pair was guilty or innocent of a crime.  This has led to prosecutions being dropped, rather than run the risk of convicting the wrong twin.

Now Dr Graham Williams and his Forensic Genetics Research Group at the University of Huddersfield have developed a solution to the problem and published their findings in the journal Analytical Biochemistry.

Previous methods have been proposed for distinguishing the DNA of twins.  One is termed “mutation analysis”, where the whole genome of both twins is sequenced to identify mutations that might have occurred to one of them.

“If such a mutation is identified at a particular location in the twin, then that same particular mutation can be specifically searched for in the crime scene sample.  However, this is very expensive and time-consuming and is unlikely to be paid for by cash-strapped police forces,” according to Dr Williams, who has shown that a cheaper, quicker technique is available.

Dr Graham Williams

It is based on the concept of DNA methylation, which is effectively the molecular mechanism that turns various genes on and off.

As twins get older, the degree of difference between them grows as they are subjected to increasingly different environments.  For example, one might take up smoking, or one might have a job outdoors and the other a desk job.  This will cause changes in the methylation status of the DNA.

In order to carry our speedy, inexpensive analysis of this, Dr Williams and his team propose a technique named “high resolution melt curve analysis” (HRMA).

“What HRMA does is to subject the DNA to increasingly high temperatures until the hydrogen bonds break, known as the melting temperature.  The more hydrogen bonds that are present in the DNA, the higher the temperature required to melt them,” explains Dr Williams.

“Consequently, if one DNA sequence is more methylated than the other, then the melting temperatures of the two samples will differ – a difference that can be measured, and which will establish the difference between two identical twins.”

Pictured (left to right) are Dr Williams's students Dieudonné van der Meer, Leander Stewart, Neil Evans and Kimberley Bexon.

HRMA has some limitations, acknowledges Dr Williams.  For example young twins, or twins raised in highly similar environments may not have yet developed sufficient methylation differences.

Also the technique requires a high sample quantity that might not be present at the crime scene.

“Nevertheless, we have demonstrated substantial progress towards a relatively cheap and quick test for differentiating between identical twins in forensic case work,” says Dr Williams, who gives a detailed summary of the science behind the breakthrough at blog-site The Conversation.

SOURCE: This article was first published online by the University of Huddersfield on 20 April 2015.

Excavating a grave site: Anthropological or forensic crime scene?

Friday, April 24th, 2015

A skeleton appearing in a grave.

Following the recent discovery of mass graves on Glenroy farm in Dududu (KZN) some months ago, the question arose as to whether the scene should be handled as a forensic (crime scene) or anthropological/archaeological case.

While a commission of inquiry has been established, it is being treated as forensic case in the first instance until otherwise determined and as such currently falls under the jurisdiction of the SAPS forensics unit while they conduct their preliminary investigations.

But what exactly is the difference between a forensic and an anthropological/archaeological case when investigating human remains?

In a forensic case the responsibility for the investigation of deaths due to unnatural causes lies with the Forensic Pathology Service in the province where the incident occurred and under the Inquests Act (Act 58 of 1959), this Service makes provision for the rendering of medico-legal investigation of the cause of death and serves the judicial process.

Up until 2006 this function was performed by, and fell under, the SAPS. As stipulated by the National Health Act (Act 61 of 2003), the operational management of the medico-legal laboratory facilities was subsequently transferred to the different provincial Departments of Health.

In an anthropological case, jurisdiction over inadvertently discovered human remains is governed by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) which stipulates that all discoveries of human remains should be reported to the local SAPS and the relevant Heritage Resources Agency.

Human remains identified by the Act, or proclaimed by the minister of Arts and Culture, should be reported to the South African Heritage Resources Agency Burial Grounds and Graves Unit. Jurisdiction, that is, whether the remains are forensic in nature or of heritage value, and whether the cause of death was non-natural and judicially relevant, is then assigned after consultation between officials.

As a general rule, although specified exceptions to this are indicated in the National Heritage Resources Act, human remains older than 60 years are not forensic, and remains older than 100 years are considered to be archaeological.

The National Heritage Resources Act also identifies categories of human remains, such as Victims of Conflict (referring to victims of the pre-1994 political violence in South Africa), which are classified as human rights abuses and deserving of special investigation and commemoration.

What is forensic anthropology?

Forensic anthropology is a specialist field that deals with the evidence that can be collected from human remains – both hard tissue in the form of dry bones and soft tissue in the form of dried flesh from dried up or mummified bodies.

A forensic anthropologist has detailed knowledge of anatomy, particularly the anatomy of the human skeleton, since the bones are usually all that remains when a forensic anthropologist is called in to identify a body.

What is a forensic anthropologist able to discern in respect of discovered remains that will aid the investigation?

Forensic anthropologists are able to reconstruct information surrounding the events that lead to the preservation of the discovered remains and call this the study of ‘taphonomy’, which includes the evidence of death, and the accumulation and preservation of bones over time.

Forensic anthropologists speak of four taphonomic periods in relation to a dead individual:

  • the ante-mortem period, which covers the whole of the time before the death of the person
  • the peri-mortem period, which is around the time of death
  • the post-mortem period which includes the time between death and discovery
  • the post-recovery period which includes the process of recovery, analysis and storage of the bony evidence.

Each period provides different contexts for enquiry. During the ante-mortem period (before death), the skeleton is living and records its own details of growth and development.

These can be used to develop a biological profile of the individual and help in securing identification.

The peri-mortem period is obviously important because it includes the events around the death and the cause of death.

However, the post-mortem period is important as well because it gives the time context of the crime by revealing information about the post-mortem interval (PMI). Each and every event after the discovery needs to be recorded as part of the ‘chain of custody’ so that there are no questions about the data when the case is discussed in court.

How can forensic anthropologists estimate sex and age?

By examining the skeletal remains, an anthropologist can estimate whether they are from a male or female.

A skeleton’s overall size and sturdiness give some clues. Within the same population, males tend to have larger, more robust bones and joint surfaces, and more bone development at muscle attachment sites.

Pelvic differences between males and females.

However, the pelvis is the best sex-related skeletal indicator, because of distinct features adapted for childbearing.

The skull also has features that can indicate sex, though slightly less reliably.

Male skull

Female skull

Determining how old a person was when they died is much more difficult than estimating their sex. The estimation of age at death involves observing morphological changes (changes in structure) in the skeletal remains and comparing it to what is known about chronological changes (changes that happen as we get older) that occur in the skeleton.

SOURCES

Friedling, J. (2012). What the bones can tell us. QUEST, 8(2). Academy of Science for South Africa.

Groen,W.J.M.,  Márquez-Grant, N., Janaway, R. (2015). Forensic Archaeology: A Global Perspective. Wiley-Blackwell.

Morris, A. (2012). What is forensic anthropology? QUEST, 8(2). Academy of Science for South Africa.

DNA database no threat to civil rights

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Mary de Haas has been quite vocal in the past regarding her negative stance on the DNA Bill and following its recent passing into law as the DNA Act and subsequent operational status, she has once again chosen to attack the issue of DNA reference sample collection by the police.

On the 23rd of February The Times published the following letter by de Haas:

Protect your DNA from cops

Overseas experience suggests that the link between the existence of a DNA database and crime-solving is not as simple as the general public is being led to believe.

Legally allowing police to take DNA samples from people they arrest (they arrest innocent people, as well as those guilty of serious crimes, routinely) is a threat to human rights.

The potential for abuse of these powers is huge, especially as DNA (even in profile form) has commercial value.

Human tissue samples should only be taken and handled by properly qualified medical personnel who are answerable to professional bodies – not by police who regularly act as if they are above the law.

Mary de Haas, Durban

In response, Vanessa rebutted with the following letter to The Times – which was published on the TimesLIVE website on the 24th of February:

DNA Reference Sample Collection Kit which will be used by the trained SAPS officials

De Haas is misinformed on a number of issues. Only arrestees who have been formally charged with a schedule 8 offence as well as convicted offenders will have their DNA samples taken by an authorised, trained police officer.

This is a simple cheek swab which takes no more than 30 seconds.

Nowhere else in the world are doctors or nurses required to take DNA samples from arrestees and convicted offenders as it is considered to be unnecessary, expensive and logistically impractical.

Furthermore, the reference sample will be destroyed once the forensic DNA profile has been loaded onto the database.

A forensic DNA profile contains only 15 pairs of  numbers, commonly referred to as “junk markers,” that were specifically chosen because they do not reveal any physical, behavioural or medical traits about that person.

The resultant sequence of numbers which make up a forensic DNA profile act simply as a unique identifier and nothing else;  just like fingerprinting.

As such there is no invasion of privacy as no private information is revealed and therefore is of no ‘commercial’ value as suggested by de Haas.

If the arrest does not result in a conviction, the profile will thereafter be removed from the DNA Database. If a conviction results, it will remain there indefinitely.

De Haas has been lamenting about the ‘serious human rights’ issues supposedly being brought about by the Database since its first introduction into Parliament in 2008.

Neither then nor throughout its five year progress through Parliament did she ever substantiate her reasons for this allegation nor submit any suggestions as to how this ‘breach’ could be addressed.

Public comments were called for on the DNA Bill by Parliament in both 2009 and 2013, and yet she never bothered to respond on either occasion.

Be that as it may, De Haas should be embracing this legislation which provides a regulatory framework to ensure that the retention framework of the Database is in fact maintained in the way in which the act envisages it to be managed.

Our new laws address this robustly and have the added protection of an Oversight and Ethics Board as well as The Human Rights Commission, which incidentally were satisfied that no human rights would be breached by this implementation of this Act.

Note too that de Haas did not apply for a position to the National Forensic and Oversight Board which surprises me since she believes it will pose such serious human rights problems.

De Haas alleging that her comments are ‘based on overseas experience’ is ridiculous to say the least. Unlike de Haas, I have in fact attended several international DNA conferences and forensic DNA profiling is without doubt considered to be the forensic tool of choice and one of the most objective forms of evidence available to crime scene investigators today.

The NAS report: Strengthening Forensic Science [Feb 2009] concluded that “…with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, . . . no forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”

Coupled with the fact that no country which has introduced DNA legislation to expand its DNA Database has ever reduced the scope of its database, is de Haas seriously suggesting we should simply ignore its huge potential as a crime resolution tool?

Whilst there will certainly be challenges going forward, we should be  welcoming legislation which creates accountability amongst the criminal population, which is in keeping with international standards and we should at the very least be supporting our existing forensic science labs who have already started to identify serial offenders as well as solve cold cases through the linking of profiles on the database.

De Haas professes to be an expert on the matter. In truth her letter reveals the contrary.

It shows that she has not  read the provisions of the new DNA Act nor made any effort to understand the complex nature of why this legislation is such a significant step forward in South Africa.  Since her last letter, the legislation has not only been passed, but is now operational.

Over the next five years we expect to see even more progress. Hopefully by that time de Haas will have found something else to write about.

Sincerely

Vanessa Lynch, Founder & Executive Director of The DNA Project

SAPS Press conference on DNA legislation – Media invitation

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

MEDIA ALERT

SOUTH AFRICAN POLICE SERVICE

To:     All media

SAPS NATIONAL COMMISSIONER PROVIDES PROGRESS ON DNA LEGISLATION

Pretoria 3 February 2015 – The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act 37 of 2013 (the DNA Act) was finally passed into law on the 27th of January 2014.

The SAPS National Commissioner, General Riah Phiyega cordially invites the media to a press conference in which she will provide progress on DNA legislation and capacity in this regard, investigations and convictions on rape cases.

Date:               4 Feb 2015

Time:              9:30am for 10:00am

Venue:            GCIS Press Room, corner Frances Baard and Festival Streets, Hatfield

Defence lawyer: Oscar may be in trouble

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Speculations and opinions run high as the days count down to the release of the #OscarTrial verdict on Thursday (11 Sept). A high profile defence lawyer reveals some of his thoughts surrounding the trial and how both the State and Oscar’s defence team handled the case. Were the various pieces of forensic evidence and expert witnesses presented handled in the best way possible?

The following article was first published by the Daily Maverick on 9 September 2014 by Rebecca Davis.

In the last few days before Oscar Pistorius hears his fate in the North Gauteng High Court, any legal eagles willing to stick their necks out with semi-definitive predictions will always be guaranteed an audience. On Monday, one of South Africa’s most high-profile defence lawyers was on hand to tell the Cape Town Press Club what he thought of the Pistorius defence team’s handling of the case. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Defence lawyer William Booth says the Pistorius case dragged on for way longer than it needed to – an idea that will likely brook no argument from trial observers or journalists.

“The trial could have taken a week,” Booth told an audience in Cape Town. “The facts are not complicated. I think they’re very simple.” He suggested that perhaps the defence and prosecution could have come to an agreement before the trial about the matters in dispute. This is the purpose of pre-trial conferences in the high courts, he pointed out: to cut out evidence and shorten the trial, since it’s one of the cornerstones of justice that the accused and the victims are entitled to a speedy trial.

In Booth’s estimation, the only truly significant witness of the trial was Pistorius himself, though he conceded that the testimony of neighbours – in terms of sights seen and sounds heard on the evening in question – was also of importance.

He had harsh words for the case presented by Pistorius’ defence team, saying that the “majority of evidence” put forward by Pistorius’ side was “a smokescreen”.

In particular, Booth expressed bemusement at the amount of time taken by Barry Roux’s side in picking apart the state’s forensic evidence and the police’s handling of the crime scene.

“If Pistorius said that he was never there, that he was out jolling, that he didn’t handle the firearm”, then the question of the precautions taken by police in managing the scene would be of significance, Booth said; but not in this case.

The defence team “dragged out a lot of irrelevant evidence” and put “poor witnesses” on the stand, Booth contended. “That has to have a negative effect on the defence case,” he said. Booth suggested that there was little justification for the amount of time taken by the defence in attempting to counter state witnesses’ evidence on aspects like ballistics.

“Red herrings are all very well, but there needs to be a reason behind the way you cross-examine witnesses,” Booth said, suggesting that Judge Thokozile Masipa might well look askance at this.

Defence witness Dr Roger Dixon – who testified on everything from the quality of light in Pistorius’ bedroom to the significance of wounds on Reeva Steenkamp’s back – came in for particular criticism from Booth, who said that he could not understand why a man whose professional training was in geology would be called to testify in this matter.

“Maybe at the Marikana Commission he might have played a vital role,” Booth said.

Forensic expert Dr David Klatzow, who was present in the audience, later chipped in to suggest that Dixon was the “worst” expert witness he had seen in his entire professional career.

Booth also criticised Roux’s defence team for failing to raise the issue of Pistorius’ state of mind “right at the beginning”. The issue of Pistorius’s potential anxiety disorder was only aired mid-way through the defence’s case, by forensic psychiatrist Dr Merryl Vorster, necessitating Pistorius’s dispatching to the Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital for a month’s worth of out-patient observation.

Pistorius’ own performance on the stand came in for a slamming, with Booth asking just how prepared the athlete had been by his defence team for questioning. It would be normal, Booth said, for a client’s lawyers to sit with the accused and meticulously prepare him for cross-examination; to clarify exactly what his defence was, and to suggest questions that prosecutors will likely ask. Pistorius’ argumentative, rambling testimony did not bear the hallmarks of his kind of preparatory work, Booth suggested.

“But maybe [Pistorius] just went off on a tangent because of the type of person he is,” Booth conceded. He later clarified that he was not “blaming” the defence team for Pistorius’ poor testimony; “I think that was probably Oscar,” he said.

Booth had praise for the state’s “clever move” at last February’s bail hearing. “I don’t believe the state had any reason to oppose bail,” he said. But the state’s opposition to Pistorius’ bail meant that the defence bore the onus of persuading Magistrate Desmond Nair of why Pistorius should be released, and in the course of this it was necessary for Roux’s team to reveal a fair amount of their hand as to what their trial defence would constitute.

Another canny move on behalf of Gerrie Nel’s prosecution was to charge Pistorius with the three minor offences he faces: two counts of discharging a firearm in public, and one count of illegal possession of ammunition.

If Steenkamp had not been killed, it would have been highly unlikely for Pistorius ever to face these charges in a court, Booth said. But introducing these charges permitted Nel’s team to introduce evidence and witness testimony as to Pistorius’ possibly aggressive and negligent character which would otherwise have been inadmissible.

The lawyer expressed mixed feelings about the effects of having televised Pistorius’ trial. On the one hand, he said, the media scrum around the case led to a situation where “you lose track of what this is about: Someone has been killed, tragically. Someone is on trial for his life.” On the other, Booth said that he hoped opening up courtrooms to this kind of scrutiny would help hold the lower courts, in particular, to account. The workings of South Africa’s magistrate’s courts are often particularly opaque.

He also voiced concern about the impact of the televised trial on witness testimony in the Pistorius case. “Traditionally witnesses shouldn’t talk to each other,” he said. “What happened here is that every witness who was about to testify knew what the previous witness had said. If they hadn’t seen it on TV channels, they would have picked it up on social media.”

This is not the only worry that has been aired recently about the effects of media attention on the Pistorius witnesses. The Times reported two weeks ago that research undertaken by Karen Tewson, head of court preparation at the National Prosecuting Authority, suggested that at least one Pistorius witness was downright traumatised by her participation in the trial.

The newspaper quoted Annette Stipp – one of the neighbours on Pistorius’s estate who reported hearing screams and bangs – as telling the researcher that she and her husband felt “trampled by a bus” as a result of the experience, describing testifying as “emotional, daunting and exhausting”. Stipp added that having her testimony rubbished by Roux made her feel “attacked personally”.

But at this stage of proceedings, everyone’s attention is only really on one matter: what will Judge Masipa’s verdict be on Thursday? Speculation is virtually futile, but Booth gave it his best shot.

Addressing the question of whether Pistorius could be found guilty of premeditated murder, Booth said: “My personal feeling is that the state will struggle to convince the court of premeditation”.

Even if the court accepts Pistorius’ intruder version, however, Booth said he believed there was a “significant” chance that Pistorius “could be convicted of murdering the intruder”. He cast doubt on the idea that Judge Masipa would accept that a reasonable person in Pistorius’ position – even given the athlete’s disability and concomitant anxiety – would have fired four shots into the “minute” space of the toilet without a warning shot.

A member of the Press Club audience told Booth that if Pistorius were to appeal a conviction, he had been reliably informed that the grounds might include the claim that Pistorius was badgered by the state; and the notion that the defence did not call all the witnesses they might have wanted to because said witnesses were reluctant to testify on camera.

Booth did not express much optimism for an appeal on these grounds succeeding. “If your client is being badgered, you get up as a lawyer. You object,” Booth pointed out, saying that lawyers could not sit back while their clients were being badgered in the hope of using this in appeal. If an accused is being badgered, there is also an onus on the judge to intervene.

Booth also said that the issue of witnesses being reluctant to testify on camera was a weak one, as provision was made in Judge Dunston Mlambo’s ruling on media coverage that if a witness did not consent to recording or broadcasting, the judge could rule that “no such recording and broadcasting can take place”.

Something Booth didn’t mention, but which might also be relevant, is that one of the final conditions of Judge Mlambo’s ruling specifies:

the presiding judge shall retain a discretion to direct that, in the event that it becomes apparent that the presence of the cameras or the recording and/or transmitting and/or broadcasting is impeding a particular witness’s right to privacy, dignity and/or the accused’s right to a fair trial, [media houses] will be directed to cease recording and/or transmitting and/or broadcasting the testimony.

Given that Judge Masipa did not direct media houses to cease broadcasting at any stage, it’s reasonable to assume that she did not believe that Pistorius’ right to a fair trial was being impeded by the presence of cameras.

All this hypothesising about verdicts and potential appeals is, of course, pie in the sky until Courtroom GD of the North Gauteng High Court is called to order on Thursday.

“By now, Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa will have made up her mind,” the UK Independent wrote last weekend. “Many a legal expert in South Africa and around the world still doesn’t know which way she will turn, which is just another reason why everyone is still so transfixed, both by the trial and by her.” DM

SA forensics: A bloody mess?

Friday, August 15th, 2014

The following article by Rebecca Davis was first published by the Daily Maverick on 14 August 2014.

Forensic expert Dr David Klatzow has been one of the most vocal and consistent critics of South African police handling of crime scenes and evidence. Speaking on Wednesday about his new book, ‘Justice Denied’, Klatzow wasn’t mincing his words about the quality of local forensic investigations.

One of the DNA Project's "Don't disturb a crime scene" social media messages launched during the Oscar Pistorius Trial

David Klatzow has a simple message for anyone accused of a crime in South Africa: don’t expect to get a fair ride.

“I’ve written a book about this because it seems to me that we have a problem in this country, ” Klatzow told an audience at the Cape Town Press Club on Wednesday. He said that there is a justifiable expectation that the state, with its powerful resources, should be able to handle the processing and interpretation of forensic evidence correctly: “One would expect the state to get it right.”

But the reality, Klatzow says, is often depressingly different. He cited the example of Fred van der Vyfer, charged with the murder of his girlfriend Inge Lotz in 2005. Van der Vyfer was ultimately acquitted with the aid of Klatzow, who was hired by the accused’s family to look into the forensic evidence which the state claimed fingered van der Vyfer.

Though questions continue to swirl around who killed Lotz, if not Van der Vyfer, Klatzow remains adamant that “there is not a shred of evidence that proved he did it”. But he says it is frightening to consider what could have happened if van der Vyfer had not been from a wealthy family.

“Fred, had he not had the resources to throw R9 million at the case, would be sitting in Pollsmoor Prison,” Klatzow says, despite the fact that the state’s case against him was “nothing but smoke and mirrors”.

Van der Vyfer’s case is one of a number that Klatzow cites to support his assertion that “dishonesty and incompetence” characterise many police investigations in this country. But the silver lining – if you can call it that – is that this is not a South Africa-specific problem. Klatzow says that in the course of researching his new book, Justice Denied, one thing became apparent: “We are not alone in this deplorable situation”.

Convictions of innocent people based on inaccurate or fraudulent evidence given by police forensic experts has a long history internationally. One example Klatzow gives is that of Dr Hawley Crippen, who was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910: one of Edwardian London’s most sensational cases.

After the disappearance of Crippen’s wife Cora, Dr Crippen claimed she had returned to America. But there were a number of things that didn’t look good for Crippen. For one, he ran off with his attractive young secretary. For another, when police searched his house for the fourth time, they found human remains buried under the brick floor of his basement. The pathologist used by the prosecution, Dr Bernard Spilsbury, testified that a piece of skin revealed an abdominal scar which was consistent with Cora’s medical history. Crippen was duly found guilty of the murder of his wife and hanged.

In 2007, however, the tissue slides used by Spilsbury were re-examined and DNA extracted from them. These tests reportedly established that the body parts were those of a man.

“On the say-so of a dogmatic pathologist, Crippen went to the gallows for a murder he did not commit,” Klatzow says. “I kick off the book with that because nothing’s changed.” (It should be noted that the idea that Crippen was innocent remains controversial.)

During Apartheid, Klatzow says, police would often produce versions of events after police shootings which were clearly incompatible with the evidence. He recalled the case of the Gugulethu Seven, a group of Umkhonto weSizwe members killed by police in 1986. Klatzow’s investigation showed that contrary to police evidence, the men had been shot at close range. One policeman claimed he had shot one man while the man was “running forwards, right to left”.

“Then why are all the bullet holes in his right hand side?” Klatzow asked.

Apartheid may be over, but Klatzow says that police incompetence and wilful deception in crime scene investigations endure. He calls the aftermath of the killing of mining magnate Brett Kebble “the worst-handled crime scene” he has encountered, saying police wanted to valet Kebble’s car before evidence had been extracted from it.

Klatzow has harsh words, too, for the handling of the Oscar Pistorius crime scene. First policeman Hilton Botha was allowed to walk all over it, he says. Then a policeman handled the gun without gloves – and when alerted to this, wiped it clean and puts it down again. A bullet fragment in the toilet bowl was missed. And to top it all off, Pistorius’ watches were stolen.

“This is handed out as the best our police can do,” Klatzow said. He added that if Pistorius were to be convicted, it would be in spite of the police work on the case, not because of it.

Klatzow also hit out at the state’s forensic laboratories, saying it could still take two years to get a blood sample back, and up to eight years for toxicology results.

“If you have a spouse to knock off, now’s the time to do it,” he said. “And do it with poison.”

But not everyone agrees that the picture is as negative as Klatzow makes out.

“I reckon that there are issues, but I like to be constructive,” Vanessa Lynch, the founder of South Africa’s DNA Project, told the Daily Maverick on Wednesday. She points out that when it comes to old cases, police could only rely on the forensic evidence available at the time.

“In the past, hair shaft analysis was considered to be cutting edge,” Lynch says. “It’s subsequently been recognised that it’s an inexact science. As we’re exposed to more and more forensic processes, we are able to get closer to the truth.”

Lynch acknowledged that substantial challenges remain, but she maintains that forensic evidence – and particularly DNA – is one of the firmest forms of criminal evidence in existence (as opposed to, say, eye-witness testimony). While the Pistorius case was dominating headlines, the DNA Project attempted to use it as a way of educating the public about the need to keep crime scenes undisturbed. “When you don’t disturb a crime scene, forensic evidence has the power to determine exactly what happened,” the DNA Project’s website instructed.

One of the DNA Project’s major initiatives over the past years has been to campaign for the establishment of a database of DNA to be used by police in the investigation of crimes. They succeeded: in January this year the DNA Act was passed. When fully implemented, it will require police to take DNA samples from criminal suspects arrested for serious offences, as well as parolees and convicted offenders. These will be entered into a database and DNA collected from crime scenes will then be compared.

When the act was promulgated, skepticism was expressed as to whether it will ever be effectively implemented – including from Klatzow. Lynch says there have been delays, but “things are moving in the right direction”.

Police still need to be trained to take DNA swabs, and the members of the National Forensics Oversight and Ethics Board appointed. This latter step is crucial, she says, because its members will be ensuring that the act is not a “paper tiger”. But applications for board membership closed in March, and its members have still not been announced.

“Despite that, there’s still movement,” Lynch says. She says the Cape Town forensics lab has set up the necessary systems already to be able to process DNA samples when they start arriving. “The back-end stuff is happening.”

Lynch has a parting shot for critics of South Africa’s forensic work. “At least we have a forensic infrastructure,” she says. “It may require tweaking, but that’s a helluva lot more than some places.” DM