The Real Story Behind DNA Delays and Backlogs in South Africa

2008-05-13

13 May 2008: The Real Story Behind DNA Delays and Backlogs in South Africa

 

The South African minister of safety and security Charles Nqakula recently released figures of case backlogs at the South African Police Service’s criminal record and forensic science service (CRFSS). Backlog figures for biology, that is, DNA testing, were at 1 042 in 2007 and 975 in 2008.

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Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) delays and backlogs have in the last few years been a constant source of criticism in the media, giving the public much cause for concern. The criticisms highlight shortcomings of the forensic science laboratories. It also, more importantly, underlines the prejudice caused to victims.

 

The DNA process, however, is complex and involves multiple agencies and role-players, including detectives, forensic field workers, analysts, prosecutors, and magistrates. A successful prosecution is largely dependent on the successful collection, analysis and interpretation of DNA.

 

In a given year, the biology unit at the CRFSS can receive approximately 42 000 cases for DNA testing. Of these, approximately 25 000 samples get classified as ‘negative’ and, therefore, not analysed. Of the remaining 17 000 cases that are blood or semen positive, only 4 080 cases are of good quality to be further analysed.

 

Turnaround time at the forensic laboratory, from receipt of a case until the submission of a report to court, is approximately 16 weeks or 120 days. It takes approximately 30 days from when a case is received until activation of the analysis, and another 90 days from activation until the report is forwarded to court. While this seems long, the average forensic laboratory service turnaround time for a biological sample in Canada in June 2005 was 114 days. At the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) DNA Forensic Science Laboratory, the average turnaround time for a case is about one year.

 

Staff shortages and staff retention at the laboratories are a challenge for management. The total personnel count of the CRFSS is 210; including 90 casework analysts, 30 technicians working on the DNA analysis process, 50 support staff and 40 staff employed at other sections. Much time and money is spent on training analysts, but some staff has left the laboratories for jobs in other government departments and other countries like Australia and New Zealand.

 

Additionally, the CRFSS only analyse DNA samples if a request form from a prosecutor accompanies the exhibit. The request serves to make the lab aware of the precise information required for court and it also serves to prevent the wastage of substantial laboratory time and resources. This would occur if for example false rape or assault claims are made and cases are subsequently withdrawn from the court roll, but the laboratories are not informed of the withdrawal and proceed to test the samples, at great cost.

 

Clearly, the CRFSS still has a great deal to do to address staff shortages and concerns about the quality of physical evidence. It is, however, evident that DNA delays and backlogs are more than just a problem of the CRFSS.
The absence of prosecutor forms accompanying exhibits to the laboratory accounts for a large number of DNA samples not being tested. Also, the role of the detectives in evidence collection has to be examined. These points alone signify the importance of training and coordination between the related government divisions and departments.

 

Given the criticism levelled against the CRFSS it is important for the public to have an understanding of the reasons behind DNA delays and backlogs. Indeed, justice for victims should remain the principal concern.

 

Bilkis Omar, Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Tshwane (Pretoria)

 

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