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1 August 2014 05:33 (South Africa)
South Africa

SA forensics: What are the dead telling us?

  • Shaun Swingler
  • South Africa
C:\fakepath\Shaun SA Forensics

There are those who say our cops are useless at collecting evidence and that our forensic laboratories are equally overworked. Others say they’re both doing a fine job. There is even a new academic course being offered in the discipline. But what does all the evidence add up to? By SHAUN SWINGLER.

A stripper is found murdered at a bachelor party in Miami. The CSI team is there within minutes, perfectly blow-dried and ready to collect conviction-ensuring evidence. They return to the lab and run a hair sample they found at the crime scene through their supercomputer. The sample contains mitochondrial DNA that gets a hit on CODIS. A police raid, headed by the CSI team, is authorised on the suspect’s house. The team barge in and arrest the culprit (jealous ex-boyfriend). After 40 minutes, a few snappy one-liners and a slick montage the bad man goes to jail.

Mpho Sibanze and Bongani Malinga are stabbed early on a spring morning in 2006. A seriously injured Mpho is able to phone her family for help. Rushing to her location, Mpho’s family find her bleeding from a gash in her throat. Bongani’s body is found in the neighbouring grassland. On the way to the hospital Mpho names her attacker. She dies a day later.

Tsidiso Hlongwane – the man fingered for the crime – is arrested nearly two years later. The South Gauteng High Court acquits him of all charges after a trial that lasts only three days. Despite there being a number of items found at the scene that are believed to belong to Hlongwane, the police fail to conduct any DNA tests that could link these items to him. The case is bungled by the forensic system and an accused multiple-murderer never even has to answer to the charges against him.

Unlike the hundreds of perfectly resolved narratives captured in the high definition morality tales of CSI Miami, South African forensics seems to rarely provide the victims of violent crime with the evidence needed to ensure that killers or rapists are convicted. Or, on a human level, for the people left behind to know what really happened to their loved ones.

The news is riddled with stories of seemingly insurmountable problems facing the state forensics system in South Africa. Opposition parties routinely score mileage on reports of seven year toxicology backlogs, missing autopsy reports and the state's apparent inability to cope with the thousands of blood-alcohol tests gathering dust in its laboratories. And, when those tests do eventually make it to court, laboratory staff are seemingly more likely to be embarrassed than lauded.

In January 2007, Judge Nkola Motata crashed his Jaguar into the wall of a Hurlingham property while under the influence of alcohol. After a trial that lasted more than two years, Motata was convicted of drunken driving, but was acquitted on the charge of driving with an excessive amount of alcohol in his blood. This acquittal was as a result of chief forensic analyst, Logan Govender, not adhering to the correct CSIR protocols when analysing Motata’s blood samples. During cross-examination, Govender admitted that, because he had not followed correct protocol, the results of his analysis were likely to have been incorrect.

Were it not for the video and audio recordings captured on a witness's cellphone, in which Motata was caught slurring and swearing, it is likely that the judge would have been acquitted.

Of course, the perfect cinematography of CSI Miami and its unrealistically quick resolution of criminal cases cannot be used as a barometer for the performance of South Africa's state forensic facilities. But, in a country intent on reducing crime and ensuring that violent criminals are brought to justice, the much-publicised failure of government's crime scientists isn't just embarrassing – it's dangerous. 

The University of Cape Town is looking to change this problem. This year, the university introduced a new master’s degree in Biomedical and Forensic Science – the first of its kind in South Africa. The degree aims to stimulate research in the field of forensics, tackling problems that are unique to the country. But it's not without controversy.

The course is run by Dr Marise Heyns, who joined UCT in August 2011 after teaching human anatomy for 17 years. She found an interest in forensics after investigating the torture method known as kneecapping while working in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She returned to South Africa after seven years to implement the skills she had acquired, because “if there’s one country suitable for forensic research then it’s South Africa”.

Heyns explains that the intention of the degree is not to produce lab technicians or evidence collectors. Despite the repeated state laboratory blunders documented in the press, she says the skills training currently available, particularly in the police labs, is more than adequate to meet the needs of the forensic science units in South Africa.

Rather, what the degree aims to do is to produce researchers who are able to understand the forensic process from the level of evidence collection right through to the preparation of forensic cases for court. According to Heyns, this will equip individuals with a holistic perspective of the forensic system, better allowing them to uncover weaknesses and stimulate more research in the field.

If there are enough skilled individuals in the labs and in the field doing their jobs, then why does it seem that the forensic system is not functioning properly?

“The system has shortages, but it is working,” Heyns says. “But without knowing intimately how the process works, you can feel that it’s not working properly.”

The problem, Heyns argues, is that every scientist is trained in one small section of a very large system without sufficient understanding of how and where their role fits into the broader context of the forensic system.

In any given case involving forensics, you have crime-scene officers who collect the evidence, which is then sent off to lab technicians to analyse (the SAPS labs in the case of forensic lab work and department of health labs in the case of toxicology work). Results from analysis are then used by lawyers to build their cases for court. The problem is that there is no one who is trained in the intricacies of the forensic process able to understand this process from start to finish.

The new master’s degree will look to rectify many of these problems by stimulating top-down research into the system, and finding ways of addressing the lack of overlap between the different disciplines in the forensic process.

The degree will expose students to a number of different aspects of the forensic system. Among other things, it will familiarise them with crime scenes and various evidence-collecting procedures, as well as lab work and exercises to teach them how to present their findings in court.

But anyone signing up for this degree with the hope of arresting bad guys and living life in a series of slick montages is, sadly, mistaken. As Heyns illustrates, “(In a typical CSI show) the same people collect the evidence, analyse it in a lab and go arrest the guy all within 40 minutes. It doesn't happen like that in real life.”

The South African forensics system is currently facing huge challenges. The SAPS was recently instructed by treasury to cut back on hiring new forensic staff in the coming year, due to budget cuts in the police force. Scientists in this sector will have to work overtime in an effort to retain any chance of efficient service delivery. This will likely result in burnout, as is feared by Lieutenant-General Johannes Phahlane, the SAPS divisional commissioner for forensic services.

Phahlane told Sapa he fears scientists already facing daunting hours and a large backlog will now be pushed to their limit. A knock-on effect of this cut will be the difficulty in retaining staff in the sector. The effort and money put in to training these scientists will have gone to waste if they are lost to labs elsewhere in the world.

David Klatzow is a forensic investigator and author well known for his outspoken views on South Africa's state laboratories and what he says are their many failings. He says Heyns's claims – that the labs aren't in as dire a state as media reports suggest – are delusional. 

“Morale at the state laboratories is at an all-time low...the backlogs run into years and all you hear about is how the police routinely fail to manage the forensic process. Police at the scene of (right-wing leader) Eugene Terre’Blanche's murder failed to pick up a piece of his tooth that was lying on his bedroom carpet. His daughter had to pick it up and give it to investigators. That tooth could have contained valuable evidence.”

Police in the Terre’Blanche case also stand accused of wiping a semen-like substance, clearly visible on crime-scene photographs, off Terre’Blanche’s body after the murder. The so-called “missing semen” proved to be fodder to accused killer Chris Mahlangu's claims that Terre’Blanche sodomised him before the killing. The state denies these claims, but without the exact nature of the “semen” being identified and analysed, it cannot disprove them.

“The situation can only get worse,” says Klatzow, who says he has doubts about whether UCT's new degree will have any real value in the fight for effective use of forensic science to solve crime.

“From what I can see, this course doesn't teach students anything about ballistics, fingerprint technology, solving fire crimes, et cetera et cetera. The people running it haven't sought input from those in the field, and the course is run in the department of medicine, not science. So I'm really not sure.”

Founder of the DNA Project, Vanessa Lynch, maintains that efficiency in state crime labs has seen a dramatic improvement over the last few years. “(When I went through to the laboratories), crime kits used to pile up on the floor,” says Lynch, speaking at a demonstration organised by the DNA Project at Cape Town Station, “but those have all been processed now and most labs have a turnaround time (for DNA results) of three months.”

“There is progress being made,” says Lynch. “We’ve got amazing technology in this country. We need to tap it, harness it and support it.”

Lynch argues that it is more constructive to focus on solutions to the problems facing the forensics system than to be unnecessarily critical, since this excessive criticism does more harm than good. “It’s not a perfect scenario but at least we have something to build on – you need to focus on the solutions.”

Despite all the negativity that surrounds forensic science in South Africa, there are cases that prove what justice officials – working with forensic professionals – are actually capable of.

On 21 July 2005, off a small road in Walkerville, Gauteng, Leigh Matthews’ naked body was found with a gunshot wound to the back of the head and bullet casings surrounding her body.

Because of a funnel web spider which had spun its web between Leigh’s thighs, and the lack of fly eggs and maggots on her body, the forensics team was able to ascertain that the area in which her body was found was not the murder scene – it had been staged.

This evidence directly contradicted the evidence of Leigh’s murderer, Donovan Moodley, who insisted he had told the young woman to strip and, while she huddled in a blanket, shot her in the field. Forensic science proved he was lying – and showed that Leigh had actually been frozen before her body was moved to the field. 

In his argument for Moodley's conviction, prosecutor Zaais van Zyl quoted two sentences from DH Lawrence that were repeated in countless newspaper reports: “The dead don’t die. They look on and help.” Moodley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. DM

  • Shaun Swingler
  • South Africa


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