Innocence Project starts in South Africa

A young girl is brutally attacked and viciously raped in the small town of Louisvale in the Northern Cape. Her injuries are so substantial that gang rape is assumed. This horrifying attack provokes outrage in the local community and six men are swiftly arrested and subsequently spend the next three months in jail – for their own safety, as the community have threatened them with their lives for committing this monstrous attack. All six men lose their jobs. On examining the case the public prosecutor calls for DNA analysis to be used to assist in the investigation. First, samples are taken from the crime scene, which in this instance is the young girl herself. A doctor collects DNA samples from her clothing and body, which are sent to the forensic science laboratory’s DNA unit for analysis. In the meantime, DNA reference samples are also taken from the six suspects and sent to the same laboratory for analysis to determine whether the DNA profiles of these six men match those analysed from the samples taken from the victim.

The DNA results reveal an unexpected turn in the investigation as they show that only one rapist is responsible for this terrible attack and that none of the six accused men have a DNA profile that matches that of the real assailant. Based on these results, the six falsely accused men are immediately released and exonerated of the crime. Another suspect, a former boyfriend of the young girl’s mother, is subsequently arrested and a DNA reference sample is taken from him and sent to the DNA laboratory for analysis. The DNA results show an exact DNA match with the rapist. He is sentenced to life imprisonment.

This is not a scene from CSI, but an account of an actual case which occurred in South Africa. What is particularly significant in this case is that DNA not only proved the innocence of six people but also led to the conviction of the actual rapist. DNA can therefore be used not only to link suspects to a crime but to exclude innocent people from an investigation.

But what of those people in prison who may have been convicted before the advent of DNA Profiling in South Africa? The case above demonstrates the power of DNA to exclude a suspect which is equally, if not more important than including a suspect in an investigation. In law school I was taught: ‘…rather let 500 guilty people go free, than convict one innocent person.’ Think about it. That innocent person could be you, and I could think of nothing worse than being imprisoned for a crime I had not committed.

I am therefore proud to have been asked to become a Committee Member of the Innocence Project of South Africa (IPSA), a recently formed non-profit organisation dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of individuals wrongfully convicted in South Africa. At first, the Project will focus exclusively on those cases in which scientific testing (specifically DNA testing) can establish the innocence of those wrongfully convicted. The IPSA will therefore specifically focus on cases where persons were convicted and post-conviction DNA testing of evidential material may establish their innocence. And, where persons were convicted when DNA testing was not yet available or where earlier processes used were not as discriminating and accurate as the current available testing methods.

However, it is envisaged that as the IPSA develops, the need may arise to also provide assistance in those cases where wrongful convictions result from other systemic defects in the Criminal Justice System, such as eyewitness misidentification; false confessions and admissions; the role of unreliable informants and ineffective legal representation.

It is the vision of the Innocence Project SA that no person will ever go to prison for a crime that he/she did not commit.

Based on the number of exonerations*** taking place through the work of the Innocence Project in the USA, there is no doubt that this is a hugely important project in our own country and I invite you to visit their website to read more about the work they plan to do in South Africa.

Vanessa Lynch

*** There have been more than 300 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history:

  • Eighteen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release.
  • The average sentence served by DNA exonerees has been 13.6 years.
  • In almost 50 percent of DNA exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing.

2 Responses to “Innocence Project starts in South Africa”

  1. sherril. bhagwanthipersad says:

    My husband has been convicted of rape. He has been handed a 20year sentence. The complainants statement had a lot of gaps, the witnesses mixed up their statements and the from the actual transcripts of the case I have read, the complainant states she was raped, but the specialist doctors that examined her stated the hymen was intact, she said he penetrated her. She says that she threw all the bloody clothes away, that means there was no exhibits, the investigating officer did not report to the court for any cases, he now meets me and says that he cnt understand how my husband got cconvicted becoz there was no medical evidence to prosecute for rape. Please help us, I am desperate. He is innocent.

  2. Philip odwah says:

    Good analysis