Archive for the ‘In the Media’ Category

 

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

Theodore Wafer Found Guilty Of Second-Degree Murder In Death Of Renisha McBride

Friday, August 8th, 2014

Theodore P Wafer

As the #OscarTrial draws to a close with final arguments, another US case, sharing some startling similarities to that of Oscar’s, has recently resulted in the conviction of the accused of second-degree murder.

The following news article by the Huffington Post’s Kate Abbey-Lambertz was first published on 7th of August 2014.

A jury in Detroit found Theodore Wafer guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the death of Renisha McBride Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Wafer, 55, was on trial in Detroit’s Wayne County Circuit Court after shooting 19-year-old McBride on his porch in November. McBride appeared at Wafer’s house in Dearborn Heights, adjacent to Detroit, around 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 2. She crashed her car nearby earlier that night, and no one knows her whereabout in the several hours between the accident and her death. She was severely intoxicated. She knocked on Wafer’s door, potentially looking for help; he came to the door with a loaded shotgun and shot her in the face.

One of the first images the jury saw in the trial was of McBride, lying lifeless on Wafer’s front porch.

Wafer pleaded not guilty and his attorney sought to show the shooting was in self defense. According to the defense, Wafer woke that night to loud, intense banging on his front door and side door and feared multiple people were breaking in.

“In the depth of his being, he’s never been that scared in his life,” defense attorney Cheryl Carpenter said.

Monica McBride and Walter Ray Simmons, parents of Renisha McBride

She cast doubt on the thoroughness of the crime scene investigation and questioned why officials didn’t examine what may have been a footprint on top of an air conditioner in Wafer’s backyard.

The prosecution painted a different picture, of a man who “wanted a confrontation” and a vulnerable woman who needed help and wanted to go home, and ended up dead for it. Wafer had other options, they argued, and pulling the trigger was “negligent” and “reckless.”

The prosecution wondered why Wafer wouldn’t call 911 if he was so scared; Wafer said he had looked for his cell phone when he woke up, but couldn’t find it.

Wafer shot McBride through his locked screen door, which was partially removed when police arrived at the crime scene. An expert witness testified he thought it came out when McBride banged on the door, while the prosecution said it happened after Wafer fired.

He testified during the trial, telling the court he shot McBride to defend himself. When he first spoke to police, he said the shooting was an accident.

“I wasn’t going to cower in my house, I didn’t want to be a victim,” he said during testimony. He also expressed remorse over McBride’s death.

Though race was rarely mentioned in the trial, the tragic death of a young, unarmed black woman in need of help has put Theodore Wafer (who is white) under the spotlight in a line of high-profile cases with black victims. Less than two months before McBride died, former Florida A&M University football player Jonathan Ferrell got in a car accident in Charlotte, N.C. and went to a nearby home seeking help. The woman called police, and when they arrived, Officer Randall Kerrick shot Ferrell, who was unarmed, 10 times. Kerrick was indicted in January. Though the cases have many differences, McBride is also often compared to Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot to death by a neighborhood watchman in 2012. Shooter George Zimmerman was acquitted last year.

“It’s not about Renisha, it’s about what her actions and other persons’ actions did to make Ted in fear for his life that night,” Carpenter said in her opening statement. “You always need to go back and look at this through Ted’s eyes.”

Wafer faces a maximum sentence of life in prison for the second-degree murder charge. The involuntary manslaughter charge carries a 15-year maximum. There is also a mandatory two-year penalty for being in possession of a firearm while committing a felony. Wafer is scheduled to be sentenced Aug. 21.

“We are obviously very pleased with the jury verdict and feel that justice was served today, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement. “We sincerely hope that this brings some comfort to the family of Renisha McBride.“

DNA Act a monumental step forward for SA

Friday, February 14th, 2014

The promulgation of the new DNA Act in January was a “monumental step forward” for South Africa as the nation battled high levels of crime, but an easy implementation should not be expected, writes Natasha Odendaal for Engineering News, 13 February 2014.

(more…)

No need to question the validity of DNA evidence

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Whenever a crime is committed and DNA used to assist in the identification of the offender, the question of whether the DNA found at the crime scene is the same as that of the criminal must be asked. In other words, whose DNA it is?

As a geneticist, and having just returned from Interpol’s International DNA Users’ Conference in Lyon where internationally renowned forensic experts spoke repeatedly of the value of DNA Databases used for criminal intelligence purposes, I was astonished to read the article in the Times today (“Whose DNA is it anyway?“, Times LIVE, November 12) which quotes Prof. Muller as saying that “the probability that someone else would have the same DNA profile as that of the sample obtained at a crime scene was one in 2 million”. In South Africa our forensic science laboratory analyses 9 different locations in the DNA molecule to determine a forensic profile and obtain probabilities in the region of at least 1 in a billion.

After the passing of the legislation, South Africa will be using technology which is even more reliable as they will be analysing 15 locations in the DNA and will then obtain probabilities of another person, other than the suspect, having the same profile as that found at the crime scene of between 1 in 10 billion and 1 in an octillion – this is an extremely exact, valid and reliable science! Furthermore, it is incorrect to say that there is a 5% chance that two people listed in even a small database would have the same DNA profile. The value of DNA evidence lies in the fact that no two people share the same DNA (except identical twins) – that is if sufficient locations on the DNA molecule are analysed, which indeed they are if 9 or more are considered.

To answer the question can forensic DNA analysts determine whether the suspect is, beyond reasonable doubt, the source of the DNA left at a crime scene – yes, absolutely. What remains is however to determine how the crime was committed and whether in fact the suspect committed the crime. These are questions that only a court can decide after the investigating officer has provided the court with information on ALL forms of evidence in the case.

For example, were there any eyewitnesses, does the suspect live in the same geographical area, what was the possible motive? DNA evidence is invariably only one form of evidence in a case, but with the chances of anyone else having the same profile being very close to zero, it is extremely compelling.

In a country that has the highest incidence of sexual assault in the world and where a child is raped every 3 minutes, who could possibly argue against the fact that our DNA database should be expanded to include people suspected and convicted of this type of offence? Add to this the well-known fact that 90% of rapists re-offend… a DNA database of previous offenders will provide investigators with valuable leads in cases where there is no known suspect and assist in crime resolution.

The new DNA Bill cannot be passed soon enough.

In order to reduce crime in South Africa we need to make use of this cutting edge technology to ensure that criminals are held accountable for their actions.

Dr. Carolyn Hancock (PhD Genetics)

Director: DNA Project

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.

DNA Project invited to attend Official Opening of the W.Cape Forensic Science Lab.

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The recently appointed National Commissioner of Police, General Phiyega has extended an invitation to The DNA Project to attend the official opening of the Western Cape’s new Forensic Science Lab in Plattekloof, tomorrow, 17th July 2012.

This promises to be a truly exciting event where the state of the art DNA laboratory will be showcased, amongst the other forensic disciplines situated in the new lab. This bodes well for the future of forensic science in South Africa as not only will the new lab address the need for increased capacity in this area, but it will also allow for more efficient processing of forensic cases due to the cutting edge technology being housed in the new lab.

The DNA Project has in addition been asked to appear on Morning Live tomorrow, 17th July 2012 and will be interviewed by etv in the wake of the new DNA Policy adopted by the Portfolio Committee for Police and how the new forensic lab will impact on the Committee’s expectations in terms of increased capacity which the new legislation will demand.

Vanessa Lynch will be representing the DNA Project tomorrow at the opening of the lab as well as on Morning Live and will provide live updates and photographs on facebook and twitter during the course of day. Watch this space to share in this historical event.

Forensic Science Invite

‘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.