GARDEN ROUTE - Successful convictions of local and national rape cases are being severely hampered by a backlog of DNA test results at the government laboratory. So said National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson, Eric Ntabazalila.
And, after George Herald received a number of complaints of long waiting periods for DNA test results and cases being temporarily struck off the roll, it has become clear that the nationwide backlog of approximately 173 000 DNA test results is also affecting rape cases in the Garden Route.
According to Ntabazalila many pending cases where DNA analysis is imperative to the outcome, cannot proceed.
"Courts will not continue to postpone matters on an ongoing basis and this does result in matters being temporarily struck off the roll. The dire consequence of this, is that once the matter is struck off the court roll, the bail conditions are no longer in effect and only once the DNA analysis becomes available the suspect can be rearrested and charged after which the case can proceed," he said.
The reason for the backlog
Dr Rineé Pretorius, spokesperson of the pressure group Action Society, said the reason for the backlog is that the police forensic science laboratory's electronic registration system has been down since June last year.
This is due to a dispute between the service provider and the police. "It can be reactivated once the dispute between the service provider and the police has been resolved," she said.
Pretorius said the system manages evidence for DNA analyses and it is not only the DNA backlog that is badly affected by this, but all evidence, which has a huge impact on the handing over and processing of DNA tests.
"The public must understand that there is a chain of events from the time a victim reports an incident to the police until DNA evidence can be submitted to a court. If this system does not work, it exposes the chain and [puts] the credibility of evidence in jeopardy," she said.
Pretorius said they are worried the ongoing problem would bring South Africa's justice system to its knees as hundreds of thousands of criminals are roaming free, likely reoffending, due to DNA evidence not being presented in court.
According to a press release by the group on Tuesday 2 March, the head of the Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) Maj-Gen Edward Ngokha confirmed a DNA backlog of 172 787 cases. "For the months of January and February 2021 no DNA evidence was processed at the FSL," he said.
Parliament now wants urgent solutions to the dysfunctional National Forensic Science Laboratories (NFSL), and has tasked the newly appointed National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board to fix the mess.
From the police desk
In response to a media enquiry, national police spokesperson Col Brenda Muridili said a root cause analysis was done to determine the factors contributing to the DNA backlog and a variety of interventions are being implemented to address the issue.
These include an additional operational budget, dedicated overtime to the forensic science laboratory, manual tracking and tracing of exhibits and adopting a project plan-driven approach to finalise the backlog.
"All critical contracts to support DNA processing have been approved and those that are outstanding are receiving highest priority. Medical surveillance of outstanding forensic analysts is being prioritised by the service provider and monitoring and evaluation of the impact of DNA processing has been implemented," she said.
Minister concerned about backlog
The Minister of Community Safety, Albert Fritz, also expressed his concern with the backlog in processing of DNA by the police's FSL and the pressure it places on policing service delivery, particularly when finalising rape cases.
"This backlog results in critical leads being lost in cases of rape and other sexually motivated crimes," he said in a press release. "Rape survivors suffer secondary victimisation as they are not only attacked but also denied their rights. It is necessary for the administration of justice that all systems that lead to the prosecution and conviction of offenders, work at an optimum. We have been ravaged by gender-based violence and femicide for far too long and it's high time SAPS took action."
Listen to a voice clip of the Minister of Community Safety, Albert Fritz, talking about the backlogs in processing of DNA by the police’s Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) and the pressure it places on policing service delivery, particularly in finalising rape cases:
Read the full press release below:
“We need to address SAPS’ backlog in processing DNA”
The Minister of Community Safety, Albert Fritz, notes with grave concern the backlogs in processing of DNA by SAPS’ Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL) and the pressure it places on policing service delivery, particularly in finalising rape cases.
Minister Fritz said, "It is my understanding that the Standing Committee of Community Safety, in terms of section 206(9) of the Constitution, will invite the Acting Provincial Commissioner and Divisional Commissioner for Forensic Services to unpack the causes behind these delays and provide a report indicating its performance in terms of DNA analysis since the beginning of 2019.”
Minister Fritz added, “As a provincial government, we are continuing to drive the implementation of the Safety Plan, through the Western Cape Recovery Plan, which aims to halve the murder rate in the province. It is necessary for the administration of justice that all systems, which lead to the prosecution and conviction of offenders, work at an optimum. We have been ravaged by gender-based violence and femicide for far too long and its high-time SAPS took action.”
The Western Cape Police Ombudsman’s research and findings
In August 2020, the Department of Community received a report from the Western Cape Police Ombudsman’s (WCPO) office with regards to a complaint of poor investigation by a local Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit (FCS).
The complainant indicated that she had opened a rape case at the SAPS in question, which was investigated by the FCS unit. The complainant provided Information to an officer with details of a witness who could point out where her stolen property was sold. This information was allegedly not followed up. According to the complainant, the case docket was additionally struck off the court roll due to DNA results which were still outstanding.
The WCPO’s preliminary investigation found that although no inefficiencies could be detected with the criminal investigation conducted by the members of the FCS Unit, that the criminal case reported by the complainant was provisionally withdrawn by the Public Prosecutor in the Court on 11 February 2020. This was due to the forensic report which was outstanding on the scientific investigation conducted on the DNA samples by the FSL of SAPS in the Western Cape. The preliminary investigation has since been concluded. The WCPO advised that on the premise of the evidence gathered, the matter cannot be resolved.
Minister Fritz said, “While we have followed up on the recommendations in the WCPO’s report, it is saddening to note that my Ministry and Department have received numerous complaints related to cases being stalled or struck off the court roll due to backlogs within the SAPS FSL.”
Response to recommendations
In line with WCPO’s recommendations, Minister Fritz wrote to the Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Community Safety, Cultural Affairs and Sports on 5 October 2020. “On the same day, I referred the report to Minister Cele,” said Minister Fritz.
It should however be noted that on 13 November 2019, Premier Winde wrote the Minister Cele as the SAPS FSL was unable to process DNA due to unavailability of agents. At the time, DNA had reportedly not been processed for six months.
Minister Fritz said, “It must be noted that Minister Cele failed to substantively reply to both letters clearly demonstrating how little concern he has for the issue of GBV and femicide; and further his unwillingness to address service delivery complaints within SAPS which include the identification and storage of decedents and vetting of SAPS personnel.”
National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board – 2018/19 annual report
When presenting their 2018/19 annual report, the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board noted that the board was facing crippling challenges in the procurement of buccal samples and evidence collection kits, and the awarding of maintenance contracts. This resulted in a significant decline in the number of cases registered and finalized.
The FSL reported a compliance rate of just 12.7% in the 4th quarter of 2018/19, a 40.4% decrease when compared to the same period during the previous financial year. This sharp decrease is directly attributed to undue delays in the awarding of bids for the procurement of consumables and evidence collection kits, and maintenance contracts for equipment.
Minister Fritz said, “This backlog results in critical leads being lost in cases of rape and other sexually motivated crimes. The shortage of rape kits means that rape survivors suffer secondary victimization as they are not only attacked but also denied their rights.”
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