Winning Women – Vanessa Lynch: The real face of CSI

2014-12-07 15:00

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Vanessa Lynch, the founder of the DNA Project, has devoted the last decade of her life to highlighting the need for a new law to nab criminals, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

When South Africa’s DNA Act was signed into law in January this year, many thought the police would start building up a database of convicted criminals that would see more lawbreakers behind bars.

Some hoped crime rates would quickly plummet. But the work of the DNA Project is, in a sense, just beginning. This is according to its executive director Vanessa Lynch, who founded the project, virtually on her own, in 2004 after her father was murdered during a house robbery.

“Up to 70% of DNA is found on the victim’s clothing in contact crimes, but my dad’s clothes were thrown away at the hospital,” she says. “Furthermore, well-meaning friends cleaned up the crime scene as they didn’t want my family and I to see it.”

Unwittingly, they wiped away possible traces of the killers. This is one of the many reasons the DNA Project is raising general awareness on how to protect crime scenes.

For 10 intense years, Lynch has forged relationships with the police and government, and has lobbied parliamentarians as she worked to get a new DNA Act on our statute books.

The former Cape Town commercial attorney, who gave up her lucrative job to concentrate on the DNA Project, secured funding for it, studied the Criminal Procedure Act and learnt the scientific principles of DNA analysis.

Spend an hour with this dynamic, determined woman and you will be astounded, as much by her energy and unflagging spirit as by the knowledge that South Africa, with one of the highest crime rates in the world, has a lot of catching up to do on the DNA front.

The goal is to match more offenders with their crimes – including many who break the law more than once – to exonerate the wrongly accused and to crack “cold” cases.

Anyone who watches the show CSI on TV will hear the term “DNA database”.

One of the world’s most famous pictures of a DNA sample being collected is of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein having his mouth swabbed. It was done as he was hauled out of the hole in the ground where he was hiding. It’s that easy, but creating a DNA database definitely is not.

Countries with well-developed DNA databases are able to solve crimes by collecting biological samples, such as a semen trace on clothing or a hair on a coat, from crime scenes. These are analysed for a DNA profile, which is entered on a database. Everyone who is arrested is profiled. In time, as this database grows, so police and investigators will be able to match offenders with a profile.

“This makes huge sense in a country like ours, which has a high incidence of recidivism [repeat offences],” says Lynch.

This has obvious implications for serial killers and

rapists who, once caught, can be linked to other crimes they have committed “because the science behind DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid] is objective and certain,” says Lynch.

She hopes the DNA Act will become operational on January 30 2015.

“The act forces the police to take samples of convicted people and people they arrest,” she says.

“We need to teach police how to take DNA samples and a pilot project is now under way in Gauteng. Magistrates and prosecutors need to learn about the new act too, as do those in the medical services.”

An oversight board also needs to be set up. It will comprise five members of the public and five from government departments, including health, correctional services, justice, and the Civilian Secretariat for Police Services.

With her vast knowledge of DNA profiling, Lynch hopes she will be a member of that board.

“We are now at a critical stage,” she says. “We have to start putting profiles on the database. We can’t wait for a perfect scenario before we press the ‘on’ button.”

She believes by starting off slowly, with fewer samples, there will be less pressure in terms of loading profiles.

The woman on whose slim shoulders rest the hopes of many a crime-weary South Africans says the pressure on her over the past decade has been intense.

She copes with the help of a supportive husband and daughter, and lets off steam by cycling in the Cape mountains with her two ridgeback dogs. “I won’t give up,” she declares. “I am driven by something deep within me, as well as the knowledge that this DNA database is one of many tangible solutions for the resolution of crime.”

Little pink book

Business tip: Strive for excellence, not perfection!

Mentor: My father. I have found myself applying the life lessons he taught me in these years after his death.

Business Book: The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. It defies stereotypes and reminds us that genius is not always found where we expect it.

Inspiration: I am moved by those who turn suffering and adversity into positive action. Theodore Roosevelt sums it up perfectly: ‘I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.’

Wow! moment: The day the DNA Bill was approved by Parliament – August 22 2013. I sat alone in the National Assembly and felt that I had done something worthwhile in my life.

Life lesson: It is as important to think globally as it is to act locally.

To mark the end of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, City Press, along with CNBC Africa, will be hosting a seminar on December 9 entitled The Role of Men in the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence.

On the panel are Patrick Shai, actor and gender activist; Mbuyiselo Botha of Sonke Gender Justice; and Meshack Kekana, the founder of Dads in the Picture.

The seminar is supported by 1st for Women.

If you’d like a place in the studio audience, please email or SMS 34263 with SEMINAR in the subject line. SMSes cost R1.50 each.

See the highlights of the Winning Women Seminar: The Role of Men in the Fight Against Gender-Based Violence on CNBC Africa, DStv channel 410, on Wednesday at 9.15pm during the Women on Wealth slot. Winning Women will return on January 11

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