Archive for the ‘Newsletter’ Category


1st issue of our new newsletter

Wed, Apr 23rd, 2014

Welcome to the 1st issue of our new regular newsletter for 2014 😀

Following the success of our annual newsletter towards the end of 2013, we’ve decided to include it on a more permanent basis as a regular feature, which we plan to release every couple of months, to further compliment our website and social media network.

April 2014 newsletter

This additional platform will grant us the opportunity to share with you a round-up of some of the key DNA Project happenings as well as highlight various noteworthy items and topics of interest such as past or upcoming events and workshops, media press articles, and even strange and interesting facts and cases relating to the world of DNA and forensics.

As always, we thank you for your continued support of the DNA Project and hope you will enjoy this jam-packed 1st issue and look forward to our the next issue, which will be available towards the end of June/early July.

Download our April 2014 newsletter (PDF)

Reflecting back on 2013

Thu, Dec 5th, 2013


As the year draws to a close, may we take this opportunity to warmly thank all of our generous sponsors and supporters who make our work possible. Your continued belief in our cause has enabled us to help make positive changes in South Africa. We hope that we have demonstrated our commitment to these values and objectives in a constructive, meaningful and effective manner throughout 2013. We invite you to please read our Annual DNA Project Newsletter to see what we have been busy with during the course of this year as well as a get a glimpse into our objectives for 2014.

with kind thanks from

The DNA Project Team

From left to right: Jenna, David, Valerie, Carolyn, Tony, Tanya, Renate, Grant, Maya, Vanessa & Lee (Not in photo: Rhys)

Groundbreaking New Training Program Developed

Mon, Aug 15th, 2011
DNA Project team

DNA Project Team

Members of the DNA Project gathered together in Cape Town last month for the 2nd Annual DNA Project’s Trainers Workshop. The objective of this year’s workshop was to critically assess the DNA Awareness Campaign we have been running for the past year to identify whether any changes or improvements needed to be made to the programme, based on the field experience of our Trainers who have been hosting workshops throughout South Africa.

The second and more exciting reason for the gathering was to ‘brainstorm’ around the development of the innovative new ‘Train the Trainer’ program which the DNA Project wants to initiate as phase two of its DNA Awareness Campaign.

Currently, the way in which we have been disseminating DNA Awareness to the private security sector, guarding services, emergency services, community police forums, the justice system and general public, has been through directly contacting these sectors of the community and offering to host free DNA Awareness workshops at their respective premises.  We believe, however, that a more effective approach to ensure DNA Awareness training would be to introduce DNA Awareness training at Trainer level, which enables those organisations which conduct their own training to provide ongoing DNA Awareness training at their premises at their own convenience. We believe that by including DNA Awareness training as part of their basic crime scene management training, it will ensure that they are comprehensively taught about the value of crime scene preservation. In addition, no matter what the turnover of staff is within a company, each new employee will automatically receive DNA Awareness training at entry level. By creating DNA Awareness as an industry standard, these  sectors of the community will be able to offer this as an added value service to their existing protocols.

In other words, instead of ‘fishing’ for the community we would like to teach these sectors  how to ‘fish for themselves’.

How will a Train the Trainer workshop differ from our basic DNA Awareness Workshop we currently offer?

The Train the Trainer workshop will consist of a full day’s training, whereby an instructor from the DNA Project will impart the basics of the science behind DNA forensics and crime scene preservation. These Train the Trainer workshops, as with the DNA Awareness workshops, will be sponsored by the DNA Project and thus will be free of charge.

Course Outline

  • A simple summary of DNA, the techniques of DNA profiling and the benefits of a National DNA Criminal Intelligence Database in crime investigation.
  • The responsibilities of the First Officer attending the crime scene with potential DNA evidence will be covered.
  • The Trainers will be taught how to identify the potential sources, locations and limitations of DNA evidence so that they can pass on this valuable information to Trainees during crime scene training.
  • An overview of the correct handling and packaging of samples from crime scenes, suspects and complainants and who should be doing what.
  • Trainees will be provided with information relating to the legislation that regulates the use of DNA as an evidential tool.
  • The Trainees will briefed as to what actually happens in a South African Forensic Lab  and how much of “CSI” is fact and what is fiction.
  • The central message of our DNA Awareness Campaign will be covered, and the reasons why these six steps are so important will be explored , namely:








For more information, or if you interested in attending a Train the Trainer workshop or DNA Awareness workshop, please contact Maya Moodley at the DNA Project on or tel (021) 418 0647.

Raped again – by the system

Wed, Jun 8th, 2011

The article written by Chris Asplen has now been published in Gauteng (Saturday Star, 11 June 2011) , KZN (The Witness, 10 June 2011) and the Western Cape (Sunday Argus, 5 June 2011). The Editor of the Saturday Star took it one step further and commented on Chis Asplen’s article in his Editorial. This is what he had to say:

The editorial refers to the article which has appeared in all three major provinces in South Africa, which was originally written and published in an international Forensic Magazine. It is an opinion piece written by Chris Asplen, who was recently in South Africa, and which visit obviously drove him to write this article. It is uncomprisingly direct and honest and very hard hitting insofar as how the international forensic community view our MP’s. I wonder if any of the members of the portfolio committee for police who are ‘reviewing’ the DNA Bill, read this about themselves? And if so, how did it make them feel? I personally, would not like to have the blood of these and future victims on my hands. Perhaps, however they will prove Mr Asplen wrong, and actually get on with the job at hand this year? Well, we live in hope, as do all the rape survivors and future victims…

Forensic DNA Database legislation urgently needed amid rape epidemic

I am a former prosecutor in the United States where I was the advisor to two US Attorneys General on the use of forensic DNA technology and where I was the Executive Director of the US Department of Justice’s National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence.  My specialty as a prosecutor was the prosecution of sex crimes committed against children. I left the Department of Justice about 10 years ago and began consulting internationally on the integration of forensic DNA evidence into criminal justice systems. I have been fortunate to help over 35 countries realize the potential of DNA technology to protect victims – mostly women and children – from the horrors of rape. I have spent equal time and energy to protect  the innocent – mostly men – from the tragedy of wrongful conviction with the very same technology.

When I first started working abroad, my presentations would often start with a rhetorical question that went something like this:  “What is the most important factor influencing the success of forensic DNA databasing?  Is it the quality of the laboratory performing the analysis? Is it the training and education of the police ensuring that they collect valuable evidence?  Or perhaps the skill with which prosecutors can leverage the probative value of DNA to support their victims’ testimony?” But of course it was a loaded question.  I had my own answer. “It’s actually none of these…” I would say. “The most important factor influencing the potential effect of DNA in any criminal justice system is what the law allows you to do with it.”

Now I am a little biased here.  I am a lawyer by training, by education and probably by nature. But I have a pretty good argument.  You can have the best, most advanced laboratory system in the world, the most rigorous quality assurance procedures, and send specialized crime scene analysts to every crime scene – but those factors mean little if the law does not allow you leverage the full potential of the technology and the evidence.

Nowhere is that dynamic more tragically clear than in South Africa.

I first traveled to South Africa 10 years ago. I left the Department of Justice less than a year earlier and had been invited to participate in a meeting of Interpol’s DNA Expert Monitoring Group in Pretoria.  It was my first trip to the continent so to say that I was excited is an understatement. I did not, in all honesty though, harbor great expectations regarding what I would see from the standpoint of South Africa’s use of DNA technology. But when I saw what the South African Police Service (SAPS) was doing, I was nothing short of astounded.  The SAPS had an automated system for DNA analysis that was unique in the world.  As we toured through the laboratory I realized that it was, at that time,  the most advanced forensic DNA testing robotics system I had ever seen.  I was so impressed that I literally walked out of the lab, got on my phone and called my former colleagues at DOJ trying to convince them to bring Johann and his colleagues to the US so that they could explain what they were doing.  South Africa was going to be a model, not only for Africa, but perhaps for the world.  They had crime statistics that proved South Africa to be one of the most sexually violent places on the planet and they had the capacity and technical sophistication to hit back hard.  South Africa was going to prove the power of DNA like nowhere else.

The automated DNA Robotics system at the Pretoria Forensics Lab

The automated DNA Robotics system at the Pretoria Forensics Lab

Boy was I wrong.

I have just returned from another trip to South Africa, a trip I have made many times since my first visit. And to be clear, it is not the police that have failed, nor is it the technology, nor is it the laboratory personnel.  Rather, ten years after South Africa created one of the most important laboratory infrastructures in the world, the politicians in the South African Parliament have still failed to give police the legal authority to save literally thousands upon thousands of lives with DNA.  Ten years later and South Africa, in contrast with more than 50 countries around the world, still has no legislation allowing for the establishment of a forensic DNA database.

South Africa is a strikingly beautiful country from its coast line at the Cape of Good Hope to Krugar National Park to the wine regions of Stellenbosch.  It is also the economic anchor for sub-Saharan Africa.   It has a technology portfolio that includes a nuclear weapons program (and the wisdom to subsequently dismantle it) a 2002 Noble Prize for work in microbiology and the first human to human heart transplant was performed in South Africa.   And most importantly, it is a country which engineered one of the most significant triumphs of human spirit and potential – the non-violent elimination of apartheid

But South Africa is also a country that, according to the United Nations, ranks second for murder and first for assaults and rapes per capita. 52 people are murdered every day there and the number of rapes reported in a year is around 55,000.  It is estimated that 500,000 rapes are committed annually in South Africa. In a 2009 survey, one in four South African men admitted to raping someone.  Even more insidiously, South Africa has one of the highest incidences of child and baby rape in the world.  It is a country where the belief exists that intercourse will cure or prevent HIV/AIDS and where child rape is used as a method of retaliation against someone else for a perceived wrong.  Children are murdered and body parts used for “traditional” medicinal remedies.  And in a country also cursed with epidemic rates of HIV/Aids, rape takes on an exponentially tragic dimension.

The world holds no shortage of human tragedies.  But most of those tragedies persist because there are no clear, identifiable fixes.  Feeding entire starving countries from overworked, infertile land or generating clean, lifesaving water from dry, parched earth are heavy lifts.  Wars and the conflicts that lead to catastrophic loss of human life have been with us since the beginning of time.  But when it comes to fighting back against serial rapists and pedophiles? I have examples from every corner of the planet of exactly what works and just how well.  There is nothing better at getting rapists off the street, at protecting little girls and, by the way, at protecting those who would be wrongly accused and convicted of those serious crimes than DNA databases.

And what exacerbates the tragedy tenfold is the fact that, unlike many countries with the wisdom to implement DNA databases fully, South Africa already has all the other components necessary to leverage the power DNA technology -the laboratory system, the finances, the education and the commitment by police. There are no other excuses, nowhere  else to place responsibility.

As someone who works regularly in other peoples’ countries, I don’t “call out” or criticize foreign  officials easily or often.  But on a scale unequaled anywhere else on earth, hundreds of thousands of children’s lives are sacrificed because of the failure to act by politicians in South Africa.  The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee responsible for the legislation that would give police the ability to immediately begin taking rapists off the street has avoided acting on the law for years.  The legislation sits in Committee while the worst sexual violence statistics in the world continue to pile up.   Except they are not really statistics. They are terrified woman and little girls staring into the face of horrific violence and evil while they are likely infected with HIV – three more of them just in the time it took you to read this article.

Chris Asplen

Executive Director, DNA 4 Africa

What the criminals think

Mon, May 23rd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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


A Disappointing Debate – what do you think?

Mon, May 16th, 2011

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

Poonitha Naidoo, Vanessa Lynch & Carolyn Hancock

Poonitha Naidoo, Vanessa Lynch & Carolyn Hancock

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

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

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

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

Vanessa Lynch debating at UCT last week

Vanessa Lynch debating at UCT last week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?


Database for DNA key to full sex crime law

Wed, Apr 13th, 2011

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

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

Database for DNA key to full sex crime law

By Sandy Yeh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Rape Kits will help crack Rape Cases

Mon, Mar 14th, 2011

The forensic DNA laboratory of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has been researching and developing a forensic kit to identify male perpetrators in rape cases. We heard last week that this kit has now been fully developed and is available to Crime Labs to help crack rape cases, specially in those cases where a victim has been raped by more than one perpetrator. 

The UWC research team looked at local regions with high gene variability between individuals, and the kit they developed was thoroughly tested against South Africa’s different population groups. It had been proved that the kit would help increase the conviction rate in rape cases. The police currently use kits that analyse both female and male DNA but this can be confusing and cluttered. This kit will supplement those in use and will support circumstantial evidence.

The kit, developed under the leadership of Professor Sean Davidson together with Dr Eugenia dâ Amato, is similar to those made in America and Europe, but is more accurate with South Africa’s population groups, UWC’s An Wentzel said.

How does it work?

The test isolates information of the Y-chromosome — which is present only in males — and is able to narrow down suspects to the range of father, son or brother.

Why is it such a ‘breakthrough’?

Because father passes his Y-chromosome to his son, meaning that they have identical Y-chromosomes and therefore they would both be suspects based on Y-DNA evidence. Davidson said forensic pathologists could now pick up male DNA more easily in a rape case, and this made it more useful in identifying the rapist, with investigators able to narrow down the range of possible aggressors. “The technology is also good at excluding innocent men,” he said.

Davidson said the test takes “a matter of days”. However, it would not eliminate the time taken in the administration of DNA processing.
The findings and results have been welcomed by the international forensics community and has been hailed by UWC  as a giant step forward for justice and rape victims in South Africa.

14 March 2011

The best Valentine’s Day Invite

Fri, Feb 18th, 2011

A strange topic you may think? Especially, if like me, you are not a fan of Valentine’s Day and all that it encompasses. However, having just landed in Cape Town from a trip to JHB last week, I received a call from General Phahlane, the Divisional Commissioner of the Forensic Lab, requesting that I please come and present at a Strategic Planning and Management Session in Mpumalanga on Monday, 14 Feb 2011. Now you can understand why it was the best Valentine’s Day invitation I have ever received!

Gen Phahlane & Col. Lindie Traut from the FSL with Willie Scholtz from the CJS

The purpose of the work session was to review the progress made with revamping the CJS and to plan the way forward with regard to the CJS within the FSL for the 2011/2012 fiscal Year. The work session formed part of the ongoing strategic planning processes currently underway in the Forensic Science Division, which is being spearheaded by its new head, Gen. Phahlane. My brief was to present to the Planning Team, The DNA Project’s overview of where we believe funds allocated to the FSL by the CJSR (Criminal Justice System Review – which you will recall was given R3bn over 3yrs) would be best spent in the forthcoming fiscal year, with a view to expanding the National DNA Database.  What a brief! The Planning Team consisted not only of the Divisional Head of the FSL, but the head of the FSL and the LCRC and all of its top management staff. It was an honour to be invited to be part of this Session and an opportunity finally to be able to present all of our hard work and research over the last few years to such a focused group of people. In addition, the new management team of the FSL are one of the most hard working and dynamic group of people I have come across and they view the work of The DNA Project as an integral part of the review process, as opposed to an opposition group with a hidden agenda. For the first time in many years, Carolyn (who accompanied me to the session) and I felt that the tides had changed insofar as the FSL recognising the critical role it plays in the resolution of crime in South Africa.

The hour long presentation I gave was received with enthusiasm and most importantly, support. In a nutshell, The DNA Project believe the 3 key areas which need to be addressed are (1) Legislation (2) Capacity and (3) Awareness. The below slide, which come out of my presentation, captures the “How” we believe this can be achieved in SA:

Re: Legislation – despite the PC dragging their heels and insisting on embarking upon their overseas trip, the FSL are two steps ahead and have already implemented extensive strategies to increase their capacity by commencing on the building of two more National Labs in KZN and the Eastern cape – by de-centralising the Pretroia Lab, it will mean that provincial cases do not clog up the Pretoria process lines and obviously will result in an increase in samples loaded. Hand in hand with this development, they believe fully in training and awareness at the crime scene. As such, we have their support in promoting the Forensic Hons degree they have helped us develop and they will be participating in lectures at the tertiary institutions offering this course. As the FSL capacity increases, they envisage employing at least another 750 analysts and as such, the more skilled analysts they can employ the better. These strategies will ensure that the FSL’s implementation plan which they will need to prepare for Parliament, will have substance and vision, two elements key to the successful execution of the DNA Bill, when passed.

But mot importantly, where The DNAP and the FSL can work together in the most critical way, is through awareness at the crime scene – I spoke of a chain being as strong as its weakest link – and this means that with all of the above strategies in place, all will fail if we cannot collect the DNA evidence left at the crime scene by the perpetrator/s. We only have one chance to do this, and this is where the public/private partnership comes into play. If we can continue to create DNA Awareness and the importance of crime scene preservation amongst the general public and sectors of the community such as within private security companies, paramedics, trauma centres, justice and schools, then they can implement training and awareness amongst Crime Scene Examiners and first responding police officers.

This leads me to my final point which is that the expansion of the National DNA Database in South Africa, and its use as a crime intelligence tool (i.e. investigations driven by DNA, rather than DNA being considered simply a piece of evidence) requires the interplay between Justice, SAPS and the FSL and….the public – which is us, The DNA Project and YOU!

All of the above points made sense to the Planning Team and even more encouraging is that they were excited about some of the ideas I presented. We left the following day with renewed hope and energy and trust in our hearts, that the new management team are going to get it right and not just right, but they are willing and able to take DNA and its potential as an evidentiary tool, to a new level in SA. The Planning Session continued over the next couple of days, and we look forward to hearing how the 2011/2012 fiscal year is going to unfold. I have no doubt that it will be a space worth watching out for….

It was indeed a “Happy Valentine’s Day” – let’s hope in this case, all our dreams come true!


Envisioning the future of DNA in SA – someone has to do it!

Thu, Jan 27th, 2011

We all know that DNA technologies have radically reshaped the role of forensics in police work throughout the world – well, that is everywhere perhaps but here in SA, where we unarguably need it the most. Even small amounts of blood, saliva, or other biological materials left at a crime scene can now lead to the identification or elimination of a suspect. Genetic evidence is being used both to convict perpetrators and to exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted on less reliable evidence, including scores of people on death row in the USA. We all know this. It is a fact. It is the future of successful police work, and that is why I am not ready nor willing to take off my gloves in our fight to make our Government recognise this all important fact.

Every now and again, I wake up and think – what is the point? All those nay-sayers who previously told me and still tell me – you will never get anywhere with our Government would love to prove me wrong and say, ‘I told you so’…  But the point is, this is inevitable – just as the cell phone has become an indispensable instrument in every SA’s life, so too will the power of DNA and its use in resolving crime, become an indispensable tool in SA’s fight against crime. So when I heard this week that the Portfolio Committee have yet again postponed their overseas tour of the UK and Canada to , and I quote, “our winter”, ie July 2011, my initial reaction was despondency – but then I realised that they are simply delaying the inevitable – whilst they manipulate dates to ensure that their overseas trip at least falls within the European and Canadian summer (a much more pleasant time to journey, you will agree), we need to ensure that all the groundwork must continue to ensure that once that legislation is in place, we are ready for it:

1. DNA AWARENESS – this is critical, because unless we are aware that DNA is all prevalent on a crime scene, that crucial evidence will be lost, and of no further use. This applies to every officer, (be it police or security guard) paramedic or member of the public and as such, we will continue to embark upon our National DNA Awareness Campaign which offers free workshops to all these sectors as well as schools, community centres and trauma centres. The more people who know about the power of DNA, how to preserve it and how it can be used to link serial offenders to their crimes and ultimately prosecute them, the better.

2. DNA CAPACITY – we need to support our Forensic Labs, as the new legislation, when passed, will require a large amount of samples to be processed if our DNA Database is to be used as an intelligent database. To this end, more Universities need to take up our offer of hosting a Forensic DNA course at their institution (we have developed a Forensic Hons course which we provide to Universities free of charge), so that we have more qualified Forensic Analysts entering the labs. We also need to support the idea of allowing private DNA labs to assist the state forensic labs, certainly in the beginning, to process more samples to enter onto the DNA Database. This is an accepted practice all over the world, and in a country which is plagued by backlogs, there is no reason not to implement this system in SA.

3. GENETIC JUSTICE & THE LAW! – without proper legislation in place, convicted offenders remain free to leave prison without having had their DNA profile entered onto the DNA Database; the current DNA Database remains unregulated due to inadequate and outdated legislation attempting to define this area of the law; serial rapists and murderers remain at large and undetected because our Database cannot be utilised as an intelligent Database without proper legislation allowing it to be used as such. We need to put pressure on the Portfolio Committee to get a move on and review the DNA Bill, because one more delay will render their stated intentions to pass the Bill untruthful, without substance and against the will of the SA people.

Our plan for 2011 therefore is to rigourously promote DNA Awareness in the first part of the year. To this end we have a media plan and funding to help us spread this crucial awareness (remember DNA CSI!?) on a national basis. When the PC return from their overseas trip, ready, we trust to finally concentrate on actually reviewing the legislation, we hope that there will be a groundswell of South African’s fully aware of why DNA and its use in Forensics needs to form part of this country’s crime fighting strategy.

Let us know if you want us to host a free DNA Awareness workshop or lecture at your organisation, school, community centre, trauma centre or security company – simply email Maya at or call (021) 418-0647.

with thanks