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DNA: The crime-fighting tool that needs to be used

Fri, Sep 3rd, 2010

This article was featured in The Witness, 3 Sep 2010 on Page 9.

DNA: The crime-fighting tool that needs to be used
03 Sep 2010

Dr Carolyn Hancock, a Director of The DNA Project

EARLIER this year Rudi Venter, who had been charged with the murder of his wife, walked out of court a free man. DNA evidence had determined he was innocent.

Venter’s wife was beaten to death with a baseball bat at their Johannesburg home in 2006. At the time, Venter said he had returned home after taking his children to school and seen two men running from the house before finding his critically injured wife. Venter was arrested for her murder a year later. Just before he was due to go to trial in February, his legal team asked an expert to interpret the DNA results from material found at the scene. It was found that DNA samples obtained at the scene contained the blood of Venter’s wife and two unidentified men. Venter’s blood was not present anywhere. Consequently, the state withdrew the murder charge.

If the DNA found at the scene had been processed at the time as a matter of routine, Venter would not have spent four years with a murder charge hanging over him.

“DNA does not only prove guilt, but it can also prove innocence,” says Dr Carolyn Hancock, a director of the DNA Project and a former genetics lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“In the United States, 258 people have been freed from prison on the basis of DNA results. The average time they had spent in prison was 13 years. Seventeen of them were on death row for crimes they never committed.”

Currently, this cannot happen in South Africa as the processing of DNA for forensic purposes by the South African Police Force Forensic Science Laboratory is prioritised according to five categories. Top of the list is a request from prosecutors when they have a suspect. The laboratory then undertakes to do a complete DNA analysis within 120 days or by trial date.

Bottom of the list are those cases with no known suspect. “This is what we believe should change,” says Hancock. “With a DNA database, reoffenders would immediately be identified.”

For this to happen, aspects of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 need to be amended in order for the country’s police force to be able to routinely use DNA for forensic purposes. The act is out of date; back in 1977, nobody had started using DNA for forensic purposes and consequently the act doesn’t specifically regulate the use of DNA for criminal intelligence purposes.

To address this omission, the Criminal Law Forensic Procedures Amendment Bill was drafted in 2008. It deals with the use of DNA and looks to allow police access to fingerprint databases other than their own, such as those of the departments of home affairs and transport, which routinely take fingerprints for identification purposes.

The draft bill was subsequently divided into two parts — one dealing with fingerprints, the other with DNA. The fingerprint legislation has been adopted. As a result, in addition to about five million fingerprints recorded by the SAPF, the police will now be allowed to search the other databases and access around 33 million fingerprints.

The DNA part of the bill is on hold while the parliamentary portfolio committee overseeing the bill reviews presentations regarding the issue and travels overseas to see how DNA analysis is done in other countries. It is unlikely that any decision will be made on the bill until next year.

If the bill is passed, which seems likely, capacity issues will have to be addressed if it is to be implemented effectively. One solution, given the lack of capacity of the SAPF, would be to outsource work to private laboratories.

“The capacity does exist out there to make this work,” says Hancock. “The immediate demand could be met. The use of private labs for the analysis of reference samples taken from arrestees would be a short-term solution, but they are used everywhere else and it is regarded as international best practice.”

But there remains a need for more qualified personnel within the SAPF and to that end, Hancock, as part of an initiative funded by the sponsors of the DNA Project, has been instrumental in developing a post-graduate qualification in forensic DNA analysis so that the state will have access to well-qualified personnel. This degree is already being offered at the University of the Free State and will be offered next year at the University of Cape Town. “The course material is freely available to any South African post-graduate institution,” she says.

Although the draft bill might be on hold, the DNA Project is promoting and publicising the use of DNA analysis in the fight against crime. The DNA Project is a non-profit, public-benefit organisation lobbying for the expansion of a national DNA database and it proposes that DNA profiles be created from DNA samples collected from crime scenes and from all those suspected or convicted of a crime.

“In this country, such a database would be hugely beneficial because of the number of criminals who reoffend,” says Hancock. “If you get them on the database the first time they commit an offence, then if you don’t convict them for their first offence you will hopefully do so when they reoffend.”

The DNA Project has just launched a new campaign aimed at promoting DNA awareness in South Africa. “We are primarily targeting community police forums and security companies,” says Hancock.

“The latter are often the first on a crime scene. You press a panic button and they are the first to respond. We want to ensure that anyone who is first at a crime scene ensures that any DNA evidence is preserved as it can easily be contaminated or destroyed. This evidence should be collected by trained SAPF crime-scene investigators.”

This nation-wide campaign sees the DNA Project offering free DNA awareness workshops to educate people as to the benefits of utilising DNA evidence for crime detection and prevention, and the need to contain and not contaminate a crime scene. “We would like to offer these workshops, which are free of charge, to those who are likely to be the first to arrive at a crime scene. For example, first responding officers, security guards, police reservists and paramedics.”

The DNA project is hoping to get this message to 10 000 people this year and they also have government funding to reach as many schoolchildren as possible. “Genetics is part of the school curriculum,” says Hancock, “and forensics is something they study — and many of them watch CSI on TV.”

The workshops will provide a basic understanding of how DNA profiling can be used to assist in criminal investigations in South Africa and the importance of preserving DNA evidence which may be at a crime scene. “This is essential as no matter how good our legislation or our laboratories are”, says Hancock, “we need to have the evidence properly preserved and collected at the crime scene.”

FORENSIC DNA evidence plays a vital role in criminal investigations because it can identify and help convict a suspect who is guilty of committing a crime or prove the innocence of a suspect who has been wrongly accused of a crime.


DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. This is the name for the chemical which is found in almost every cell in the human body and which is the blueprint or recipe for that person’s characteristics. Everyone’s DNA is unique (unless they have an identical twin). A person’s DNA is also exactly the same in every cell of their body. For example, the DNA pattern, also known as the DNA profile, in a human’s blood is the same as the DNA in his or her skin cells, body tissue, semen and saliva, which makes it possible to compare crime-scene evidence such as semen stains, saliva on cigarette butts and blood on clothing, with DNA obtained from a blood sample or cheek scraping taken from a suspect.


A DNA profile is simply a unique list of letters and numbers obtained from a person’s DNA that acts as a personal identifier. A DNA profile contains no information about a person’s physical characteristics, their mental predisposition or anything about their medical his-tory. In the same way as fingerprints link a suspect to a crime, DNA provides scientific evidence that can identify or exclude a suspect from a police investigation. It can also be used to identify a victim through DNA from relatives, even when a body cannot be found. DNA profiling can also link two or more crime scenes. When evidence from one crime scene is compared with evidence from another, the police can tell whether it was the same person who had committed two different crimes. Even very old cases, which the police thought would never be solved, may contain DNA evidence that can be used to identify the person who committed that crime.


Once DNA samples have been collected from a crime scene and processed at the Forensic Science Laboratory, the DNA profile, which is the identification number taken from the DNA sample, can be compared with the DNA profiles taken from a known suspect. If no known suspect exists, the DNA profile taken from the crime scene is still valuable, as when it is entered onto the national DNA database, the police can see whether that DNA profile links to another known DNA profile on the DNA database or perhaps it may even link several different crimes to each other.

— DNA Project.


Murder mystery in JHB

Fri, Sep 3rd, 2010

Many of you may have heard of our very own “DNA Detective”, Prof Valerie Corfield? Renowned for her innovative and inventive teaching methodologies, Prof. Valerie Corfield is one of our appointed DNA Awareness trainers, based in the Western Cape. If you haven’t seen her in action, you should put it on your ‘bucket list’. Prof Corfield has the ability to transcend all boundaries in such a way that you are not even aware that you are actually learning something at the same time.

Learning about 'ice breakers' in training from Prof Corfield

Prof Corfield in action

Next week the ‘Prof. of DNA’ will facilitate a murder mystery evening in JHB at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre to raise awareness about DNA technology in South Africa. If you can, I encourage you to go and play ‘CSI detective’ with this DNA Detective on Tuesday, 7 September at 6:30 pm. You will enjoy an evening full of plots, sub plots, intrigue and numerous contradictions as you determine the modus operandi and sift through multiple motives to identify the murderer. The Prof will make you interview witnesses and suspects, gather evidence and decide for yourself what really happened one dark night in Newtown.

But in all seriousness, the murder mystery evening at Sci-Bono has actually been designed to allow you to explore the science of DNA profiling and find out more about how forensic DNA databases can be used as a tool to catch criminals. You will be invited to join the discussion about the ethics of DNA profiling and decide for yourself if South Africa needs a criminal intelligence DNA database.


DATE: Tuesday 7 September

TIME: 6:30 pm for 7:00 pm

VENUE: The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre

RSVP: or call Refilwe Pico at 011 639 8448

In the meantime we have been extremely busy making contact with countless security companies, police reservist clusters, paramedics, CPF’s and any other groups whose personnel may arrive first on a crime scene – we have been offering FREE DNA Awareness workshops throughout South Africa in an effort to educate people about the importance of preserving DNA evidence at a crime scene and how that evidence can be used in helping solve crime. We have qualified trainers in most provinces and have printed materials which we hand out to trainees FREE of charge to facilitate these workshops.

Workshop in JHB at Tracker being filmed by SS1

Workshop in JHB at Tracker being filmed by SS1

We have raised the funds to create this awareness, yet it is amazing how slow organizations have been to take up this incredible opportunity. There is no catch. This is what we are about – we want to promote DNA awareness in South Africa and the more people who are aware of its amazing potential in crime fighting, the better. Pleasecontact us so that we can arrange a workshop for your organization or CPF – alternatively SPREAD the word. We can have all the legislation, scientists, facilities and equipment in place – but if we don’t preserve the evidence for proper collection – all that is worth nothing.

Please let us know if you or your organization would be interested in helping us host a training session/s and we will send you further information. Email Maya, our training coordinator at

with thanks


ps – below a few images from some of our workshops held in Gauteng and KZN.

DNA Laws are being passed everywhere but here!

Mon, Aug 23rd, 2010

Many of you may have caught Carte Blanche last night where I was interviewed on behalf of The DNA Project (click here if you missed the Carte Blanche interview). The overwhelming message was that we urgently need to pass DNA legislation in SA in order to utilize our DNA Database in such a way that it provides criminal intelligence. DNA is the gold standard for criminal investigation throughout the world and yet here in SA, where it is needed the most, we are being held to ransom by the members of Parliament who have yet to resume deliberations on the DNA Bill.

Why? Why are our Parliamentarians so slow on the uptake to implement laws to regulate this amazing technology which we have at our disposal?

The first phase of the DNA Bill which dealt with fingerprints was adopted in March 2010 – it is now August 2010 and we have not heard a word from the Portfolio Committee as to when they will be returning to Parliament to consider Phase Two – DNA. The World Cup is over, and everyone else seems to have gone back to ‘business as usual’, but every inquiry I make as to the whereabouts of the people who are supposed to be looking at this bill, are met with a blank stare or worse yet, “I don’t know”. This is unacceptable. But what can we do about it? We can speak up! That’s what.

Have a look at the following link:

Don’t you wish we had more politicians who acted like the Governor of North Carolina in the USA, Bev Perdue? How many of our politicians have been effected by a violent crime just like she was? But what are they doing about it?

Perdue calls DNA testing the 21st-century fingerprint and she believes it will help prevent violent crime across her state. “In many, many cases DNA becomes the difference maker,” says Governor Bev Perdue. Starting in February, police across North Carolina will take DNA samples from anyone charged with murder, rape, or other violent felony crimes. The General Assembly passed the bill in July 2010.  Officers say it will prevent crime and solve cold cases. “It also helps us exonerate the innocent because it is so precise,” said Roy Cooper, North Carolina Attorney General.

Perdue says DNA samples will keep repeat offenders off the streets, preventing crimes like the murder of her dear friend Kathy Taft.

“This became personal to me especially because one of my 30-year best friends was murdered during the spring,” said Perdue. DNA testing was used to bring Taft’s murderer to justice in May this year.

The North Carolina State law enforcement has solved nearly 1,400 crimes using the existing DNA database.  Now with earlier testing, they’re looking to solve even more.

And I love this message from Perdue for lawmakers who still call DNA testing unreasonable search and seizure. “We have 21st century science and technology that allows us to catch really bad people faster and it is really unreasonable for the elected leaders and all of us to not move forward to make our streets as safe as we can,” she said. Hear! Hear! (wish you were here!)

Attorney General Roy Cooper says the law has privacy safe guards.  It’s a felony to misuse DNA and law officers will delete DNA records from the state’s database if the person is acquitted or their charges are dismissed. In addition, Law enforcement from the local level to the SBI will now of course have new responsibilities and they’ll undergo training on how to use the swabbing kits for collecting DNA.

Now, how difficult could that be to implement in SA? What exactly is preventing us from writing a story like the one above?


ps. since writing this blog, one of the portfolio committee members tasked with reviewing the bill has responded to my email requesting further information on the lack of progress of the bill – see the below commentary to follow what has transpired to date. I will continue to post the responses as I receive them. V.

Carte Blanche features Vanessa Lynch talking about DNA Legislation

Sun, Aug 22nd, 2010

Date: 22 August 2010 07:00
Producer: Eugene Botha
Presenter: Chantal Rutter
Show: Carte Blanche
To watch the show on-line click here for part one and click here for part two of the story.

1979: A grim scene in a Los Angeles suburb. An elderly woman is found dead on the floor of her kitchen. There’s evidence that she was also sexually assaulted.

David Doan (Deputy Chief: LAPD): ‘There were a number of leads on that case. There was even a possible suspect – a neighbour – but there was not enough evidence to establish that he committed the crime.’

But the case went cold, says David Doan, Deputy Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

David: ‘What we refer to as ‘cold cases’ means a case where the trail has gone cold on leads… there are no further leads.’

All the evidence, including clothing stained with semen, was put into storage. But the case was not forgotten.

David: ‘Here in the Los Angeles Police Department we never close our homicide cases, we always consider them open.’

In 2003, 18 years after the murder, DNA profiling had become a useful tool in solving crimes.

Cold case detectives re-investigated the case. They sent the victim’s clothing for analysis and obtained a DNA profile of the murderer.

This unknown profile was then entered into their DNA database system, known as CODIS.

David: ‘In 2009 an individual was stopped for driving a stolen vehicle. His DNA was taken and we received what we refer to as a ‘cold case match’. He happened to be 17 years old at the time when he committed the crime and he was 51 years old when we identified him as the suspect in the case – another example of an individual who would not have been held accountable for the murder of this elderly woman if it had not been for a DNA database.’

And, all over the world, DNA profiling and DNA databases have become major tools in crime fighting.

David: ‘I cannot imagine doing police work today without DNA no more than I would be comfortable today seeing police work without fingerprints and photographs.’

One would think that using DNA in this way would be standard practice wherever profiling is available. But it’s not.

The LA murderer would never have been caught in South Africa, and not because of backlogs.

There’s another reason.

Vanessa Lynch (Director: DNA Project): ‘Where we fall short is that we’re not progressing with our legislation as we should.’

Vanessa Lynch is Director of the DNA Project, and promotes the use of a DNA as a crime fighting tool. She says the SAPS’s DNA profiling capabilities are excellent.

Vanessa: ‘The quality of the processing, the DNA analysis that is coming out of our laboratories, is in fact superior.’

Although we’ve often reported on the massive backlogs in processing forensic evidence by both the police and the Health Department, the DNA profiling unit at the Police Science Laboratory is apparently world-class and delays are minimal.

Vanessa says the problem is that current legislation is outdated and prevents the full use of DNA to solve crimes. New forensic legislation has already been sitting before a parliamentary committee for more than two years.

Vanessa: ‘But what they did was they split it between fingerprints and DNA. Initially it dealt with both. The committee has just passed Phase 1 of the bill, which is fingerprint, and now it has been passed through the national assembly and various areas of parliament. They will then look at Phase 2. They have decided, however, that they want to go on an overseas tour to both the UK and Canada to look at how other systems operate.’

While our legislators are battling, other countries have addressed many of the problems pertaining to forensic DNA profiling.

To understand the issues involved, one first has to understand what forensic DNA profiling entails.

Colonel Luhein Frazenburg of the SAPS’s Forensic Science Laboratory in Pretoria explains.

Col Luhein Frazenburg (Commanders: DNA Case Work): ‘Basically what we do here is we do all DNA analysis for all DNA cases in South Africa. Blood samples, semen samples, saliva, any human tissue is tested here.’

Chantal Rutter (Carte Blanche presenter): ‘Colonel, what is DNA?’

Col Frazenburg: ‘DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic Acid. It is a molecule that’s present in all living cells. It’s the genetic blueprint of a person. Now basically half of your DNA you get from your mother and half of your DNA you get from your father. Also, your DNA does not differ over your lifespan and all your DNA is the same whether you look at your hair samples, your blood samples, bone, or tissue samples.’

Luhein showed us around the state-of-the-art forensic science laboratory.

Chantal: ‘This is something really special. It’s one-of-a-kind and it is right here at the police forensic laboratory in Pretoria.’

It’s the only fully automated DNA profiling system in the world and was developed right here in South Africa. It can process 800 samples a week. And it’s in part thanks to this machine that there are no DNA profiling backlogs in Pretoria and only a few in the Cape.

DNA profiling entails extracting and analysing a DNA strand from a human cell.

Vanessa: ‘95% of your DNA, they in fact don’t know what it codes for. About 5% of your DNA they know you have blue eyes or two legs… two arms, etc. But the 95% which they call ‘junk DNA’ or ‘non-coded DNA’ in fact doesn’t code for anything that they understand.’

There are millions of these pieces of non-specific DNA.

Vanessa: ‘They only take nine numbers out of those millions of markers of your non-coded DNA and that’s all they need to identify you as an individual.’

Each of these nine selected areas on the DNA strand contains contributions by one’s parents. They can be expressed by a pair of numbers. So, in effect, your forensic DNA profile consists of a list of nine pairs of numbers.

The chance of two people having the same numbers in the nine pairs is one in 79 trillion. In the US, they use 13 pairs of numbers for a forensic profile.

Vanessa says that the lack of proper DNA legislation in South Africa prevents the police from fully utilising this invaluable identification tool to solve crimes.

For example, current laws don’t allow for DNA evidence obtained at all crime scenes to be processed.

Vanessa: ‘If you collect DNA evidence from a crime scene, but you don’t have suspect, they won’t process that DNA profile.’

Furthermore, our outdated legislation prevents the police and other law enforcement officers from taking DNA samples from suspects.

Vanessa: ‘A DNA sample currently is taken by way of a syringe by a medical practitioner. This is by virtue of an old 1977 act which was promulgated long before the advent of DNA profiling.’

And, under current legislation, the right of an individual to privacy is perhaps the main issue. Taking a DNA sample and preserving it on a database is seen as an invasion of privacy.

So unless DNA was involved in convicting them, the DNA profiles aren’t taken from convicted murderers, or rapists already serving time. Vanessa thinks privacy fears are unfounded.
Vanessa: ‘Even if somebody, for instance, got hold of the DNA database and looked at those sequence of numbers, there is nothing they can do with them. They cannot read any genetic disposition, whether physical or medical, from those sequence of numbers. And that is why throughout the world it has never been challenged constitutionally. It does not represent an invasion of privacy and we need to understand this in South Africa.’

So maybe another overseas trip for parliamentarians is not such a bad idea after all.

Vanessa: ‘Perhaps they’ll realise when going there, not only that it is successful in terms of crime resolution, crime investigation, and ultimately crime prevention, but also that all the issues that they are concerned about have legitimately been addressed by virtue of legislation that has been passed that shows that it is not an invasion of rights and that it is okay for a police officer to take a swab from you in order to take a DNA sample.’

David: ‘I think we need to find a compromise between a right to privacy and an ability for law enforcement to find people who have committed some pretty heinous crimes. And I think the method that we’re using currently gives you that balance.’

And if these issues can be resolved, our tiny DNA database of 123 000 profiles could be significantly expanded. It could then be used for cross-referencing like databases elsewhere in the world.

Chantal: ‘So, in what way do you think legislation should be changed?’

Col Frazenburg: ‘Well, it would be advisable to have as many as possible of arrestees on the database so that you can compare that to the crime samples that we get it.’

In parts of the world where national DNA databases have been implemented, crime solving has skyrocketed. And there’s another benefit.

Vanessa: ‘It becomes such a strong form of evidence that when a suspect is presented with a positive DNA match that links them to the crime they plead guilty. In the UK, 82% of suspects that are presented with this type of evidence, plead guilty – 82%! You can imagine what that does to your criminal justice administration.’

Deputy Chief Doan says those cases solved with DNA profiles did not violate anyone’s rights.

David: ‘We don’t think these people’s privacy, the suspects’ privacies, were violated because I don’t know anything about their genetic history. I simply know what their DNA looks like in 13 places.’

But until we have new DNA legislation in place, criminals will continue to get away with murder in this country.

Vanessa: ‘I think it needs to be urgently addressed because I think two years is already too long to have waited to pass this urgently required legislation.’

click on the links below to view interesting articles on DNA

Sat, Aug 30th, 2008

Forensic Science Services ( UK)

Presidents DNA Initiative (USA)

Compassionate Friends of SA

Leigh Matthews Trust

Innocence Project

DNA technology has transformed the fight against crime

South Africa pioneers automated forensic DNA analysis

SAPS hopes automated DNA system will help with backlog

Aticles written on the DNA Project: