Forensics to boost conviction rate

Ray Maota

Forensic science provides the link between a crime scene and a suspect.

The new forensic science laboratory in Plattekloof in the Western Cape cost R600-million (US$71-million) to build.
(Images: Flickr)

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The backlog of criminal trials dependent on forensic evidence is set to be reduced in the Western Cape province with the opening of a new state-of-the-art forensic science laboratory.

The facility, which took six years to build at a cost of R600-million (US$71-million), was officially opened by Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa and National Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega in the Cape Town suburb of Plattekloof on 17 July 2012.

It will not only serve the province, but several districts in the northern and eastern Cape regions as well. It replaces the old centre in Delft, and is the fourth of its kind in the country, after Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and Durban.

“There were unsatisfactory reports around courts not being able to finalise cases on their rolls and these were attributed to delays in forensic services,” said Mthethwa, explaining the purpose of the new facility.

Cases are considered to be at backlog stage if it takes more than 28 days for results to be finalised upon evidence being presented to the labs. More worrying is that conviction rates had dropped drastically as a direct result of the backlogs over the past few years.

Forensic science provides the link between a crime scene and a suspect. From as early as 1901, fingerprinting has been used to help track offenders. However, the international forensic tool of choice is DNA profiling, which was introduced in 1984, as evidence may be collected through hair, blood, saliva, semen and perspiration samples.

How the lab works

The lab has been in operation since November 2011, and offers services such as DNA analysis, drug identification, and causes of fires. The staff has also being carrying out polygraph tests, gunshot residue, handwriting and blood-stain analyses and 3D facial recognition scans.

The building’s function revolves around a system of metal cabinets where samples of evidence are catalogued by type and how urgently they should be processed. The cabinets run on rails about 800m long and are shunted between nine collection kiosks, from where samples can be transported to their designated units for investigation.

This system is used in many forensic centres in Europe, and will hopefully resolve the problem of evidence being misplaced or tampered with, as the boxes can also be tracked using a biometric system.

This is how modernised systems, coupled with adequately equipped human resources, can contribute towards an improved turnaround time in terms of processing forensic case work, said Mthethwa.

Fighting abuse against women and children

Phiyega, who was appointed in June, said that in the past year, over half of the cases processed by forensic science investigators throughout the country were for rape and murder, both of which are in the violent crimes category that Mthethwa’s department prioritises in terms of achieving convictions.

She added that the lab will be another weapon to fight crimes against women and children.

Forensic services have been identified by the police ministry as a vital component in fighting crime and Phiyega confirmed that there will be increased capacity in this area.

According to NGO DNA Project, Parliament is reviewing the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill which, if passed, will ensure that every person arrested for an alleged offence as well as all convicted offenders, will have their DNA profile loaded onto a database managed by the crime intelligence division.

These profiles will continually be searched against DNA profiles collected at crime scenes, to try to find a match and identify a suspect.

Given the number of repeat offenders in South Africa, there is a strong possibility that an individual, taken into custody for a crime, was previously convicted of a similar crime and already has his or her DNA profile on the system.

Decline in backlogs

The national forensic services division of the police department achieved a criminal conviction rate of 94% in the year 2011/12 – up from 63% in 2009/10, said head of forensics services, Lieutenant-General Julius Phahlane.

Even though only 77% of evidence was processed within 28 days – against a target of 92% – the number of cases lodged at laboratories that were older than 28 days old were reduced by 30% in 2010/11, following a 60% decline in backlogs from 2009 to 2011.

The backlog in processing evidence also came down significantly, from 59 023 on 1 April 2009 to 11 310 on 1 April 2012.

There are 6 930 employees in the state’s forensic division and 800 more appointments are expected by the end of 2012 in an effort to further reduce backlogs.

For 2011/12, R63-million ($7.5-million) was set aside by the government for enhancing skills within the division, with a further R35-million ($4.1-million) earmarked for the current financial year ending March 2013.