Crime fighting goes hi-tech as DNA profiling introduced

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Radovan Krejcir

THE police’s crime-fighting arsenal has been given a major boost.

Over the next six weeks, trained profilers will begin capturing DNA profiles of the nearly 200 000 prisoners who are either serving time in South Africa’s jails, awaiting trial or on parole.

These include children who have been convicted or accused of a crime.

Among those set to be profiled at Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru II prison are awaiting-trial prisoner Radovan Krejcir and convicted killer Oscar Pistorius.

DNA from individuals who appear on the sexual offenders register will also be captured.

The profiling comes as police yesterday announced the implementation of the contentious DNA Act.

The legislation, which sees the establishment of a DNA database, is designed to ensure police investigations are DNA-driven.

“There have been major strides in the forensic division and this is one of them. It is a major step,” forensic expert David Klatzow said, adding that it would go a long way towards assisting police.

By March 5, 500 detectives – whose own DNA and that of their colleagues will form part of the database’s elimination index – will be trained in DNA collection.

Details of how the DNA database will work were released by the police yesterday.

Lieutenant-General Khomotso Phahlane, police divisional commissioner of forensic services, said that unless acquitted, offenders’ details would stay on the database indefinitely. All prisoners would be sampled within the next two years.

The profiles of those acquitted are destroyed within 30 days, on the order of a court. If no order is made, they are destroyed within three years.

If an investigation is still under way, the profile is kept until its completion.

DNA will be collected by specially trained detectives through cheek swabs, with the act providing strict timeframes for when the samples should be delivered to the police forensic laboratories, analysed and eventually destroyed after profiles are drawn from them.

Samples, which must be destroyed within 90 days, contain a person’s entire genetic makeup, while profiles contain a limited amount of unique alpha-numerical data.

Phahlane said backlogs which had plagued forensic services in the past had been largely eradicated.

“The backlog has dropped by 92% – from 59 023 to 4 440 cases by late last year. The oldest case we have dates to October 2014.

“While DNA, ballistics and other investigations are processed in our laboratories, blood alcohol and toxicology is profiled by Department of Health laboratories,” he said.

Overseeing the police, who will implement the act, is the newly appointed Forensic Oversight and Ethical Board.

The board, which has no police on it and is chaired by a retired Constitutional Court judge, consists of civilians, NGOs and members of the Correctional Services and Justice departments. But the move is not without criticism. Rachel Ward, a Human Rights Commission senior researcher into civil and political rights, said while satisfied with the legislation, there were concerns including:

  • Who manages the database and its purpose;
  • The deletion process; and
  • The profiling of children and the length of time profiles are kept.

“However it is legislated, there will always be human rights issues which must be dealt with, especially with the proclamation of the Protection of Personal Information Act [Popi],” Ward said.

She said when Popi was implemented, it would have to be ensured that when DNA profiles were deleted, they were permanently erased.

“Such failures would be a constitutional violation of a person’s privacy,” she warned.

Vanessa Lynch, deputy chairwoman of the oversight board, said the profiles of children, regardless of their status in the criminal justice system, had to be deleted from the database within a year without exception.

She said a child’s DNA sample could only be taken in the presence of a guardian. “The act is in line with the Child Justice Act.”

She said because of South Africa’s high serial offender rate, there was a good chance of linking people to other crimes.

“Perpetrators are often arrested for minor offences. Now through this act police can easily close in on offenders and link them to other serious crimes.

“In a country crying out for justice this database is a vital tool.”

Lynch was instrumental in advocating for the DNA database, believing that her father’s murder could have been solved had one existed at the time.

But Golden Miles Bhudu, of the SA Prisoners’ Organisation for Human Rights, slammed the move saying it would infringe on prisoners’ rights even further.

“Whereas in the United States, this technology is more often than not used to exonerate convicted prisoners of crimes they never committed, we believe that this will be used for the reverse in South Africa.”

-Graeme Hosken

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