The signatures of innocence and guilt (part 2)

Date: 28 Apr 2009
We have increasingly sophisticated tools for recovering DNA from crime scenes but, without a known suspect, there is no way of linking the DNA to the perpetrator. We need to expand our database. Enter the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Bill. South Africa is on the verge of introducing legislation that will enable police officers to take a DNA sample from arrested suspects in the form of saliva from a cheek swab or blood from a finger prick. All profiles will be retained on the national DNA criminal intelligence database, regardless of whether the suspect is convicted. Police will also be able to add convicted offenders retrospectively. The DNA Project hopes this will further increase the chances of a match and also deter those who know they're on the database from future criminal activities. In one Canadian province authorities offered to provide convicts with early parole if they gave DNA for inclusion on a national database, and the majority refused. According to Lynch, this shows those convicts either intended to go back to crime, or had been involved in other crimes, for which they had not yet been caught. The new bill went to Parliament in January, and the portfolio committee was told to give it urgent priority but, after three months, Parliament went into recess due to the elections and the chairperson of the committee announced they hadn't had enough time to finalise the bill. According to Lynch, the bill is likely to be passed, but because of the upcoming change of government, the process might take longer. Either the same portfolio committee will be reinstated after the national elections, or a new committee will be put in place and it will have to start from scratch. DNA profiling might not work where identical twins are involved. This month, German police had to release twin brothers arrested for stealing R78 million worth of jewellery. They knew that at least one of the brothers had taken part in the robbery, but because their DNA was identical, they couldn't prove which one. There are concerns about the invasion of privacy, and a reluctance to have information about our DNA stored in the hands of the state. But the DNA used to create profiles for forensic investigation is non-functional DNA - it doesn't reveal anything about the person. Only 5 percent of our DNA is responsible for everything about us - our physical characteristics, personality and mental capabilities.. Scientists haven't found any purpose for the remaining 95 percent. An ID number gives away more information. According to the DNA Project, the use of non-functional DNA, combined with the fact that it will be a legal requirement to destroy the actual samples - blood, saliva, semen - once the profiles have been stored in the database, means there's little to worry about. Sceptics say there is still the chance that the creation of any kind of DNA profile is a step in the direction of more ominous forms of control. Think Gattaca, the 1997 sci-fi movie starring Ewan McGregor as a genetically inferior man in a society where the state defines what citizens can and can't do based on the quality of their DNA. Lynch's answer is: "At some point you have to establish a point of trust, and move forward." She thinks DNA profiling provides a balance between our right to freedom from violent crime, and our right to privacy. There are also the concerns that DNA might be planted at a crime scene, or contaminated after recovery - you can contaminate a sample with your DNA by coughing on it. According to Hancock, investigators would pick up that there was more than one source of DNA, and that contamination was a possibility. Furthermore, DNA is never the only form of evidence in a case. "There will have to be some other form of evidence. DNA evidence will prove that the person was there. That might be a huge piece of evidence, but it won't be the only evidence," said Hancock. In 2002, double murder accused Colyn Ackerman, 25, was acquitted because the defence brought in experts who tried to discredit the procedures of the forensic laboratory in Pretoria where DNA testing had been done. Blood from one of the victims had been found on a knife allegedly owned by Ackerman. In the end, the case was dismissed because the state witness who needed to testify about the safe handling of evidence was overseas on a study trip. Ackerman walked free. In the UK, where a massive education drive took place about DNA testing, it's more difficult to question the procedures surrounding DNA evidence, and 85 percent plead guilty when they know there's DNA evidence against them. The DNA Project says South Africa's new legislation will help bring us in line with the UK, and other countries. Capacity remains a big issue, but the hope is that far more capacity will be freed by the increased efficiency that will be brought about by the new bill. In the UK, a DNA expansion programme led to an additional two million profiles being loaded onto the national database over four years, resulting in a considerably increased hit rate. Similar expansion in South Africa could drastically change the face of crime prevention and resolution in the country. By Kanina Foss The Star 28/04/09e1