AFTER a decade of focused determination to get a new DNA Act through Parliament, its driver, Vanessa Lynch, who gave up her career as a commercial attorney to champion the legislation, is not celebrating — yet.
“The act is only paper until the building up of a forensic DNA database of our criminal population is truly under way,” she explains, adding that five years is a reasonable time frame for that to happen. “After that, when we’ve loaded a certain number of profiles, then we can evaluate the situation realistically.”
Such a database is particularly vital in SA because of the unusually high rate of recidivism (repeat offenders). “Criminals have, quite literally, been getting away with murder,” says Ms Lynch, whose father was killed in his home by robbers in 2004.
Nobody has been arrested in connection with the crime. Adding to the tragedy, well-meaning friends cleaned up the murder scene, and her father’s clothing was disposed of by the hospital. “In contact crimes, up to 70% of DNA may be found on the victim’s clothing,” Ms Lynch says.
Ms Lynch has travelled the world since she set up the DNA Project in 2004 to lobby for support for the expansion of the national DNA database. She’s spent considerable time at forensic laboratories in the UK, has been to Holland, to the US, attended Interpol conferences and has given presentations at several international meetings.
It is due to the DNA Project that law students will soon begin to learn all aspects of DNA profiling — from the crime scene to the courtroom. “We will be providing course modules to all the universities,” Ms Lynch says. “We’re also training magistrates.”
If the project’s team succeeds in its crime scene awareness programme, then murders such as Ms Lynch’s father’s should be easier to solve. The first people arriving at a crime scene will know that they must not touch a thing until properly trained experts arrive.
Victims’ clothing, and other valuable evidence, will be safely secured for DNA analysis. After a sample is obtained it will be matched with profiles on the database or, in the case of suspects who have not been through the system yet, it will be filed for later use in court cases.
Five years seems a long time to wait for results, but Ms Lynch’s decade-long campaign has taught her how to cope with frustration. The DNA act was passed in January 2014, but it was not made operational. “Some (pieces of legislation) are passed and then lie around for years,” she says.
The act was finally made operational on January 31. Shortly afterwards Ms Lynch was informed that she had been made deputy chairman of the Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board, which will ensure the effective and transparent implementation of the act.
Its chairwoman is a retired Constitutional Court judge and five of the board’s 10 members are drawn from the nongovernmental organisation sector.
Ms Lynch is relieved at its composition. “There are oversight bodies with so many government members on them that they cannot operate independently,” she says. The board is “a watchdog, reviewing any potential abuses. We have to ensure that there aren’t any. Furthermore there has to be a balancing of everybody’s rights.”
The act is not without its detractors who worry about human rights abuses. Some are concerned that people may be charged but later acquitted. But samples are not taken after any crime is committed, but only for Schedule 8 offences, which include treason, rape and kidnapping. When suspects are acquitted their DNA profiles will be removed from the database. There are special provisions for children.
The profiles are drawn from DNA samples that contain an individual’s entire genetic makeup. It has, by law, to be destroyed within 90 days of the DNA profile being loaded on to the database. The profiles are far more limited than are the samples in terms of their unique alphanumerical data.
“In SA they look at 16 regions or markers from the noncoded region of our DNA. In some countries they look at 24 markers,” Lynch says.
The latest advances in DNA technology are such that even burnt or badly degraded bodies can still be successfully profiled with new generation sequencing. “All that is needed is one tiny cell. One hair on a coat,” Lynch says.
But she warns that the DNA Act is not a golden bullet and it will not be the solution to crime. “Semen taken from the body of a five-year-old child is not the end of the story. The rapist still has to go through the criminal justice system.”
The aim is to train 5,500 detectives by the end of March to take DNA samples, and about 100,000 police officers will be trained over the next five years.
Once enough police officers have been trained then, in terms of the act, authorised police officers will have to, by law, take a sample from every person arrested and charged with a Schedule 8 offence. The same applies to every convicted offender.
Ms Lynch explains that once the law is mandatory and an arrested person is taken to a police station where there happen to be no trained policemen, “then a nurse or doctor can be called in to take a sample”.
It’s easy to do but certain procedures have to be followed.
One of the world’s most famous pictures of a DNA sample being taken depicts former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, having his mouth swabbed just after he was hauled out of his hole in the ground.
She concedes under pressure, for she’s essentially an extremely private personality except when it comes to the DNA Project, that this new law could have been passed eight years ago. “There’s really no excuse for it having taken so long,” Ms Lynch says. “This DNA technology has always been there.
“You need someone consistent to drive it because there have been three government administrations since I started lobbying to get a new law passed.”
Ministers and MPs have come and gone but the vision and drive of the original founder is necessary to see something through to its conclusion. “Nonetheless, my colleagues as well as key people along the way have fought as hard as I have” Ms Lynch says. “This is a collective effort.”
But she admits that the pressure on her slim shoulders over the past decade has been intense, adding that her surgeon husband and daughter have been really supportive.
Ms Lynch relaxes by cycling, or walking her two ridgeback dogs, in the Cape mountains and when things were particularly tough she told her daughter that riding downhill was easy.
“It’s how we manage the uphill that defines us.”