What is the Portfolio Committee going to do next?

Mrs Chikunga Sindisiwe - Chairperson of the tour

With approximately 50 murders, 200 woman and children raped and 550 cases of assault everyday in South Africa, why are we still not using the most powerful weapon in modern day crime investigations? DNA. Whilst it may not be the silver bullet, it is without question the strongest form of evidence available today.

So – with the return  of the parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Police from their fact-finding mission to Canada and the UK, what are these ordinary people, who now wield the power to change SA for the better and finally pass the DNA Bill going to do next?

To recap their trip, they left for Canada on the 24 June 2011 where they looked at the Royal Canadians Mounted Polices’ Forensic laboratory and fingerprinting department. They also met up with the Canadian public prosecutors and parliamentarians. From there they went on to the UK which has one of the largest DNA databases in the world, with over 5 million or 8% of their population on the database. In the UK, between 01 April 2010 and 31 March 2011, their national DNA database has produced 106 matches to murder, 588 to rapes, and 29 959 to other crimes, with over 300 000 crimes being detected using the database since 1998. After visiting the UK labs, the committee were briefed on crime scene management and met up with the state agencies involved in implementing their own DNA Bill.

Upon returning to South Africa on the 11th July 2011, after their 18 day ‘study tour’ we are waiting to hear whether they have learnt anything new and whether they have realised how important it is to regulate this area of the justice system.

We have heard from various sources that the portfolio committee should reconvene in September with a view to finalising this Bill for once and for all. We therefore wait for the final report on their fact finding mission, which we have been told will be published at the end of August. We have written to the Committee Chairperson, the secretary of the Committee, the Parliamentary Researcher and a Committee member asking for any one of them to confirm when they will publish their report and when they intend to reconvene. We shall inform you as soon as we hear anything from anyone.

What do we think will happen? Judging from feedback from different people who either presented to the Committee or accompanied the Committee on their tour we think we may see the committee taking a slightly more conservative approach with possibly only criminals with serious convictions placed on the database. We expect that they would then also have to clarify a retention framework allowing those DNA profiles which do not result in a conviction to be removed after a certain amount of time if that person has not re-offended. The length of the retention framework may then be dependent on the seriousness of the crime committed.

Alan Matthews, formerly of the FSS (UK) who presented to the Committee whilst in the UK

Alan Matthews, formerly of the FSS (UK) who presented to the Committee whilst in the UK

Perhaps they may look to the DNA profile retention policy in Scotland which follows the basic rule that DNA samples and profiles of persons arrested but not convicted must be destroyed, but where the person is arrested for serious sexual or violence offences, they can be retained for three years, with the possibility of extension for another two years.

An interesting case which needs to be remembered where retention of DNA profiles in non-convicted cases is involved, is the case of Wendell Wilberforce Baker. On January 23, 1997, a 66-year old spinster was raped in the early hours of the morning. She was locked in a cramped cupboard for 15 hours before someone found her. She was taken to hospital where semen samples were collected and the DNA profile was placed onto the DNA database. As the database was still in its infancy (established 2 years previously) there was no match. About a year later, Wendell Baker was arrested for burglary of which he was later acquitted. A DNA profile was taken and compared against the national DNA database after his release, his profile matched that of the rapist that attacked 66-year old spinster a year earlier. Due to legislation saying his profile should have been deleted after his acquittal he could not be tried for the rape, and to this day is still a free man even though his DNA profile matched that of the rapist in January 1997. It is unfortunate that a caveat in the law allowed a rapist be released back into society for a crime that DNA profiling showed he committed.

Luckily the above case is only the exception, here are a couple cases in the UK where DNA evidence was used successfully. In May 2011 John Cooper was convicted of the 1985 murder of brother and sister Richard and Helen Thomas and Oxfordshire couple Peter and Gwenda Dixon in 1989 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was also convicted of separate charges of rape, sexual assault and attempted robbery. The two sets of murders gave rise to much speculation, however the case remained unsolved until John Cooper was arrested in 2009. In December 1985 John Cooper killed Helen Thomas and her brother Richard during a break in at their remote mansion near Milford Haven. Police believe that he had been disturbed by Mr Thomas, turning his shotgun on the couple before pouring diesel around the three-storey farmhouse in an attempt to destroy the evidence. Four years later Peter and Gwenda Dixon encountered John Cooper as they walked along the Pembrokeshire Costal Path at Little Haven. John Cooper took the couple to an improvised hideaway where he shot them at point blank range. The break through came when Dyfed-Powys Police launched a review in 2006 of material gathered during a 1998 investigation that had led to John Cooper being jailed for 16 years for a string of burglaries. Tests uncovered new forensic evidence, a blood speck on a shotgun belonging to John Cooper and DNA on a pair of shorts – linking him to the murder of Peter and Gwenda Dixon.

In 1988 James Robertson attacked and raped a young woman in Canterbury, Kent. James Robertson had intervened as the victim argued with some people in the city centre, he then offered her a lift home. The victim quickly realised that James Robertson meant to attack her after he ignored her directions and drove her to a secluded wooded area near the city where he raped her before dumping her near her home. At the time of the rape James Robertson was on licence from prison after serving 11 years for kicking a man to death in Scotland. After the attack James Robertson moved to Preston where in 2001 he attacked a man he knew in a city centre restaurant with an axe. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment in September 2002 and released four years later. As a result of the axe attack police had a James Robertson’s DNA profile and in 2009 it was found to be a match to sample collected from the 1988 rape. In May 2011 James Robertson was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

We shall be sure to publish the Committee report as soon as we have received it. It is after all a public document and their 18 day trip was at our (the taxpayers) expense so transparency is the very least that can be expected!

Portfolio Committee Member Dianne Kohler-Barnard who went on the 'study tour' commented that the Committee do recognise, following the tour, that 'legislation is required in SA' to regulate a National DNA Database


One Response to “What is the Portfolio Committee going to do next?”

  1. Polo says:

    This is great news,let the red tape take a back seat now.I have a feeling that our DNA database will probably yield the highest hit rate as soon as it is functional.As a Forensics student I cannot wait!