Criminals getting away with murder due to key evidence being destroyed at crime scenes

The following article appeared in the June 2012 edition of The Big Issue

By Gina Ginsberg

Hundreds or more perpetrators of violent crime are getting off scot-free because of a failure to preserve crime scenes that could contain DNA evidence crucial to identifying criminals and putting them behind bars.

This is according to the DNA Project, a non-profit organisation working to ensure justice is meted out to criminals through the proper use of DNA analysis and a national DNA database which would help to nab repeat offenders.

“Crime is so high in South Africa because people act with impunity. There does not seem to be any consequence because there is no evidence collected [to conclusively link them to the crime], so they are able to get away with it, ” said Vanessa Lynch, founder and executive director of the DNA Project,

The Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill of 2009, referred to as the DNA Bill and expected to be tabled in parliament in September, may force important changes in the way police collect and use DNA evidence and how it is stored in a national database.

Lynch welcomed the Bill but slammed government’s tardiness in pushing it through parliament.

“There is no good reason for why we don’t already have a law which regulates the expansion of a DNA database,” she stressed. “Government has a lack of momentum…Delays are unacceptable, the forensic DNA Bill should have been looked at last year.”

Lynch claimed the country’s high violent crime rate, especially rape and murders, could have been reduced had an effective DNA database already been in place.

She added that proper collection of DNA samples from suspects and all convicted criminals could lead to a drastic reduction in the number of crimes committed by repeat offenders.

According to Lynch, many crimes which remain unsolved are committed by repeat offenders.

“This why DNA technology is so vital,” she argued. “By collecting DNA evidence from victims of rape, for example, you create criminal intelligence by linking serial rapists to victims. You will then be able to take them off the streets and we will probably find that rape statistics will go down dramatically. But at the moment, the impunity in which criminals act allows them the freedom to do what they want, and to act without consequences.”

Public awareness key

Lynch said there is still a huge amount of groundwork to be done to educate both the public, the SAPS and emergency response staff about the importance of preserving a crime scene in order for the Bill to have any meaningful impact.

“One of the greatest challenges we have in this country is that people need to understand that, in some cases, it can take a few days for officials to arrive and collect all of the evidence,” she explained. “We need to be vigilant. We need to be part of the process to ensure that crime scenes are protected in that time…If we can achieve this very basic act, it will be incredible how much evidence can be collected from a crime scene and how we can then link perpetrators to their crimes.”

In the meantime, the NGO is continuing to raise public awareness of the importance of DNA evidence.

The DNA Project holds regular free workshops and assists in training paramedics and other emergency responders on how to leave a crime scene intact for forensic investigators.

The project also recently created a public installation at the Cape Town train station which simulated the destruction of a crime scene.

A large sand box was placed in the centre of the station with stones depicting the face of a convicted felon. Early morning commuters were encouraged to walk over the scene, eventually making the face unidentifiable. The process was filmed using time-lapse videography and will serve to inform the public how disturbing a crime scene causes evidence to quickly be destroyed and prevents criminals from being identified. © The Big Issue SA

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