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Criminals could walk free because of a backlog of more than 200 000 forensic tests needed for court prosecutions. But that is not the only problem facing the justice process – because the forensics analysis system is such a mess, police often don’t know where evidence is.
Police Minister Bheki Cele told the National Assembly this week the backlog at the South African Police Service Forensic Science Laboratories stands at 208 291 cases of which 36 626 cases are DNA-related and 82 000 of these are related to gender-based violence and femicide.
Harriet Klopper, a lecturer in forensic criminalistics, said the DNA backlog is not the only issue.
“Due to the forensic data analysts (FDA) system problems, the police do not know where the evidence is being stored,” she said.
Klopper explained there is an ongoing dispute between the police and the company FDA about the ownership of the system.
“So basically there is no continuity of possession of the evidence at the moment because the police do not have access to the system,” Klopper said.
She said that when evidence is collected there must be a chain of custody to prove the legal and physical integrity of the evidence.
“There should never be a link missing in the chain of custody because then evidence may be thrown out of court,” she said.
Klopper said a successful crime investigation consists of subjective information, such as eyewitness accounts, as well as physical evidence.
She said in the absence of objective evidence due to the backlogs, prosecutors will have to depend on subjective evidence received from witnesses.
“The situation at present is a loss for victims who deserve justice and a win for the perpetrators of crime, who also have a right to a fair and just trial,” Klopper said.
Vanessa Lynch, regional director for DNA for Africa, said the important question is when will the backlog numbers drop.
“I certainly think the matter has now been taken seriously and the minister has made commitments,” Lynch said.
Dr Rineé Pretorius, spokeswoman for Action Society, said due to the government’s incompetence, the DNA backlog increased by at least 15% per month between November 2020 and March 2021.
Christiaan Bezuidenhout, criminologist and professor at the University of Pretoria, said cases may slip through the cracks letting criminals get off scot-free.
“They will certainly drop the ball, especially considering they are 208 000 cases behind and have still not done anything about it for two months,” he said.
Bezuidenhout said it’s going to be problematic because evidence such as hair and blood monsters may be contaminated or lost.
He said there is a good chance criminals may be led off the hook due to the backlog and other challenges.