Using DNA to catch criminals

2009-02-20 00:00

The popular television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has made forensic detection the crime-fighting flavour of the month. “It’s not as glamorous as that in South Africa,” says Carolyn Hancock, “but the series helps people understand the benefits of using DNA in crime detection and prevention”.

Hancock, a Karkloof resident, is a director of the DNA Project, a public benefit organisation lobbying for the expansion of a national DNA database to be used in the fight against crime. The project proposes that DNA profiles be created from DNA samples collected from crime scenes and from all those suspected or convicted of a crime.

The DNA Project recently made presentations to the parliamentary portfolio committee in favour of the Criminal Law Forensic Procedures Amendment Bill that also has the backing of the National Prosecuting Authority and Business Against Crime. (See box.)

The DNA Project was founded by its executive director, Vanessa Lynch, a commercial attorney who gave up her job in 2005 in order to run the DNA Project full-time. Her father, John Patrick Lynch, was murdered five years ago and potentially useful forensic evidence at the crime scene was ignored. Pondering the “what-ifs” of the situation, she began investigating the benefits of promoting the expansion of the South African national DNA database.

Co-director with Lynch and Hancock is Rob Matthews, the father of Leigh Matthews, who was murdered in 2004. The Matthews family set up the Leigh Matthews Trust to fund crime-fighting initiatives in memory of their daughter and other victims of violent crime. The DNA Project is a major beneficiary of the Leigh Matthews Trust.

Hancock joined the DNA Project after watching an edition of M-Net’s Carte Blanche in 2007 which featured the DNA Project. “In the programme, Vanessa mentioned that they were looking for people with certain scientific skills, particularly in the area of education and training.” Hancock had the skills, having been a genetics lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal for 14 years and involved with science education. “So I volunteered.”

The DNA Project enjoys a good working relationship with the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratories (FSL). “We work with them, not against them,” says Hancock. The project has donated DNA profiling equipment to the FSL and continues to raise and allocate funds for this purpose.

“We have the beginnings of a fantastic system,” says Hancock, “and some excellent and dedicated people working against all odds”.

In terms of identifying suspects, the use of DNA in criminal detection is the biggest breakthrough since fingerprinting and many countries have been quick to take advantage of it. “The UK has the biggest DNA database,” says Hancock. “And in the U.S. a presidential initiative funded the implementation and expansion of their Criminal Intelligence DNA database. Canada has one and so do most of the European Union countries and India.”

South Africa has a limited DNA database primarily consisting of DNA profiles taken from crime scenes. However, the DNA Project would like to see the expansion of this DNA database to include profiles taken from DNA samples found at all crime scenes, as well as DNA profiles taken from all individuals suspected of committing a crime and previously convicted offenders currently in prison. “The police can then either match a crime scene sample to a suspect they already have or even identify a possible suspect from the database,” says Hancock.

“In this country such a database would be hugely beneficial because of the number of criminals who reoffend. If you get them on the database the first time they commit an offence, then if you don’t convict them for their first offence you will hopefully do so when they reoffend. The majority of criminals are not that sophisticated; they always leave something behind at the crime scene, for example saliva, hair, blood or semen. This is in contrast to fingerprint evidence where the criminal has to have touched something in order to leave behind evidence that may be used in a criminal investigation.”

The Human Rights Commission (HRC) has raised concerns that the creation of a national database consisting of DNA profiles obtained from DNA samples taken from individuals suspected of, or convicted for, committing a crime could infringe on their constitutional rights to privacy and dignity. However, Hancock says the information contained in the DNA profile itself doesn’t tell you anything personal about that individual. “It is simply a sequence of numbers that may be used to identify persons as everyone has a unique DNA profile.”

DNA-profiling technology makes use of between nine and 13 “markers” or specific DNA sequences to create a unique number that may be used to identify an individual. This profile does not contain any information on the genetic disposition of an individual to either a genetic disease, behavioural tendency or any other physical feature. The use of a DNA profile is the same as using a fingerprint and the only time it would be used is for criminal intelligence purposes.

Hancock says DNA profiles should be obtained from samples gathered from any crime scene, whether it be a robbery, a drunk-driving case or murder. If DNA is to be taken from a person at the scene, or arrested on suspicion of a crime, all that is needed is a saliva swab or droplet of blood from a finger prick. However, under the present legislation to obtain DNA, a blood sample has to be taken by a doctor. In practice this simply doesn’t happen. “But now the proposed amendment to the act allows for a simple procedure using a cotton bud or pinprick,” says Hancock. “Police officers could be trained to do it. It’s much simpler.”

Reviewing SA’s use of forensics

The aims and objectives of the DNA Project come at a time when the government is reviewing the criminal justice system. “The Criminal Justice Review team, headed by Deputy Minister [Johnny] de Lange, has identified the area of forensics as one to be developed,” says Carolyn Hancock, a director of the DNA Project. “The Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 needs to be changed by Parliament as it is outdated. Back in 1977, nobody had started using DNA for forensic purposes and this 1977 Act doesn’t specifically regulate the use of DNA for criminal intelligence purposes.”

The Criminal Law Forensic Procedures Amendment Bill is one of the first measures to emerge from this review process and earlier this month there were public hearings made to the portfolio committee tasked with passing this legislation. During the course of these proceedings, the DNA Project was invited to make a submission to the portfolio committee in support of the bill.

The proposed bill also looks to change the way fingerprints are taken and allows access to the databases of the departments of Home Affairs and Transport and national firearms register, which routinely take fingerprints for identification purposes. There are already somewhere between four and six million fingerprints recorded by the SAPS — a link with the other databases would allow access to approximately 33 million. “To have all those fingerprints is fantastic, but we also need to add DNA profiles,” says Hancock.

Capacity issues will have to be addressed if the bill is passed. The Human Rights Commission’s Danzel van Zyl pointed out at recent public hearings that last year there were 1,2 million arrests and that the police service forensic services would be unable to cope.

Hancock says education and training will be urgently required if the bill is successful. “At present, there is a shortage of qualified DNA analysts to work with DNA samples as there is no specific tertiary training in forensic biology in South Africa. So the [SAPS Forensic Science Laboratories] has to train them up rather than appoint them already qualified.”

Hancock is currently working with a task team formed by the Criminal Justice Review to develop a post-graduate qualification in forensic biology. “The course material that is developed will be available to any South African post-graduate institution.”

In last week’s budget speech, Trevor Manuel allocated a “further R5,4 billion … to interventions aimed at improving criminal justice services, the creation of an integrated fingerprint and DNA database, improving detective capacity, upgrading IT and telecommunications systems and increasing the number of police officials from 183 000 last year to over 204 000 in 2011 and 2012.” It is hoped that the bill will be green-lighted as a result of the allocation of this budget to this critical area of need in South Africa.

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