Victim Empowerment and DNA Forensics Conference

Victim Empowerment and DNA forensics, hosted by Inqaba Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape on the 25th March 2011

Vanessa and I attended the Victim Empowerment and DNA Forensics workshop on the 25th of March 2011. Throughout the morning’s proceedings there was undeniably one fact that we, as South Africans need to take into account: DNA, as a criminal investigation tool, is versatile.

(1)               DNA is and has been successfully used in exonerating the innocent in post-conviction DNA testing. Professor Keith Findley is currently the President of the Innocence Network and the co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

For those of you who are unaware, the Innocence Project a “national litigation (of the United States of America) and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice” [Innocence Project,].

The Innocence Network is an international organization which has 63 affiliated projects worldwide (granted, the majority are Innocence projects within the USA). Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are the only non-US members [].

While the stats are not available in South Africa, here are stats Prof Findley provided us:

–   Number of people exonerated by post-convictions across the United States = 267 (17 from death row)

–   Average number of years in prison before released = 13

13 years. 13 years an innocent man is in prison while the perpetrator is walking the streets potentially committing more crimes. I don’t know about you, but that needs to change.

(2)               The legal perspectives on forensic DNA and DNA databases was discussed by Mr Chris Asplen, a United States Federal prosecutor who was also pivotal in the commission for the use of DNA in evidence.

As Mr Asplen so eloquently stated, regardless of the power of DNA evidence (and it is a powerful investigative tool), it is only useful when the law allows you to do something with it.

There are currently 50 DNA databases around the world and every country has only ever increased the size of their databases. Ultimately, the aim of a national DNA database is to identify the guilty, prevent crime and protect the innocent. When DNA is found in a crime scene, in the United Kingdom, there is a hit (DNA profile from the crime scene matched a DNA profile on the database) between 68-72% of the time.

We heard inspired investigative techniques from range of countries. For example, DNA of a perpetrator was successfully extracted from a mosquito in Finland resulting in the criminal being convicted, in another case, DNA was extracted from blood on the beak of a bird thereby identifying the murderer.

The key messages from Mr Asplen, for South Africa were the following:

–   “Do not sacrifice the good for the perfect”

Do not wait until the South African Police Force and forensic team can do “CSI” type cases. We need to start protecting victims now, we need to have a foundation to work on. That foundation is the implantation of routine DNA profiling of arrestees.

–   The measure of our success with this technology and whether we chose to do it, is counted in peoples’ lives.

(3)               From victim to survivor to victims advocate. Mrs Lavinia Masters spoke to us about her personal battle after a brutal rape at 13.

Though semen was taken from Mrs Masters, the case to identify her perpetrator was closed. Her life, after the rape, was a nightmare – she lived in constant fear, and withdrew into herself.

It was not until the Denver police department launched the Sexual Assault Cold Case Program that Mrs Masters’ case was taken through DNA profiling and her rapist was identified. Kevin Glenn, was already in jail, serving time for a multitude of crimes he committed after Mrs Masters.

Life after knowing her rapist was behind bars allowed Mrs Masters to become a DNA advocate (if DNA profiling was done on the semen taken from Mrs Masters, the number of crimes Kevin Glenn committed before being arrested would be far fewer than what he did) and a victims advocate, helping those who were in her position move on.

(4)               Power of DNA databases and humanitarian issues. Ed Huffine from BODE technologies spoke to us on additional uses for DNA databases.

From identifying missing persons, tracing ancestral lines and even searching mass graves and charred remains in Bosnia, DNA profiling has a pivotal role in these investigations.

Overall the workshop was an enlightening, inspiring morning and cemented, yet again, that we as South Africans have to do all we can, as citizens to get the DNA bill passed.

DNA is the way we need to go. Yes, DNA is no silver bullet but it is a robust investigative tool. Think about the number of lives we could’ve saved by convicting serial rapists and murderers years ago. Think about the victims we could have saved. Science never lies.


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