2007-01-07 : Why criminals are walking free

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2007-01-07 : Why criminals are walking free

Postby GOSA » Wed, 2007-01-10 14:38

http://www.suntimes.co.za/article.aspx?ID=297309

Why criminals are walking free

Dominic Mahlangu, Henriette Geldenhuys, Nashira Davids and Buddy Naidu

A staggering 427319 police cases remain unsolved, many because work on crucial evidence like DNA, ballistics, blood tests and other forensic material linking criminals to crimes is not being done.

This figure includes 183988 crimes of murder, attempted murder, rape and assault from April last year to March 2006.

The forensic work for a further 780000 cases that make it to court can take up to a year, causing these cases to be postponed, or even struck off the roll.

The Sunday Times has been told by several forensic specialists at the two laboratories in Pretoria and Cape Town that the main reason for the backlog is that two state-of the- art machines, worth almost R100- million, are gathering dust.

The machines were bought to fast- track the testing of DNA samples.

One is capable of testing thousands of DNA samples a day.

The specialists said there were massive staff shortages and that existing staff did not have the experience to process data before it was put into the machines.

Police investigators are told daily either to wait for the results or to try to find other evidence.

High-profile cases like the Jacob Zuma rape trial, the death of R&B singer TK and the murder of kidnapped student Leigh Matthews were given preferential treatment .

Since the Sunday Times spoke to lab insiders, a witch-hunt has begun to root out the whistle-blowers.

Judges, magistrates, state prosecutors and police countrywide repeated the specialists’ concerns and have lashed out at the state’s inefficient forensics capabilities — blaming them for cases crumbling.

Official statisti cs released by Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula and national Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi this week showed that between April 2005 and March this year, 31272 murder and 17044 rape cases remained unsolved.

But yesterday Selebi denied that the forensics crisis was behind the large numbers of unsolved cases.

He said the two machines were “working like a bomb”.

“As I’m speaking to you they are working. They run 24 hours, 365 days non-stop. There is no holiday for those machines.”

He later admitted that some of the machines not in use were “old”.

He said the facility in Pretoria was “world-class”, adding that the new machines cut back turnaround time “to days”, not months.

Selebi added that the 427319 unsolved cases needed to be looked at in context.

“The statistics show cases reported to the police ... some of these cases would be withdrawn by the complainant .”

He said other cases were still under investigation or had been carried over from the previous year.

He said most of the 427319 cases “don’t require forensics”.

But Western Cape Safety and Security Minister Leonard Ramatlakane said there were problems and these were being addressed.

“Nine months is too long and so is five months for DNA tests to come back,” Ramatlakane said.

The Sunday Times can confirm that a provisional battle plan has been drawn up to solve the crisis. This includes roping in university students and filling more than 100 vacancies.

Tshifhiwa Maumela, president of the Judicial Officers’ Association, said there was a lot of frustration.

“Sometimes we have no choice but to remove the case off the roll because we cannot postpone forever. Not only are you releasing a dangerous offender back into the community, you are sending the wrong message to other offenders — that crime is going unpunished.”

Some of the high-profile cases that are in limbo because of forensic delays include:

- Anthony Cooper, who is accused of starting a fire on Table Mountain in January that killed a British tourist. He was arrested and charged with arson and culpable homicide . At the time he was also arrested on a drunken-driving charge. He has appeared in court many times in connection with both cases. The drunken-driving case was again postponed in August to November 29 because the forensic report on alcohol levels in his blood was still not available. It is suspected that Cooper has fled the country;

- An investigation into the killing of Johannesburg socialite Angela Kupane, stabbed to death 177 days ago. The case hinges on the results of tests on DNA evidence found at the crime scene. Four cellphones stolen from the Kupane home on the night of the murder are currently in use, but police have asked the family not to cancel them;


- The murder of eight-year-old Veronique Solomons in Cape Town a year ago. A blood sample taken from a suspect soon after the murder has still not surfaced and, as a result, he has not been arrested; and,


- The arrest of a 40-year-old man in July 2004 for allegedly raping his 16-year-old daughter. The case was repeatedly postponed over an 18- month period because of outstanding DNA evidence. In January the case was struck off the roll at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court. On the same day, the man allegedly tracked down his daughter and raped her again. He has since been rearrested.


Adriaan Bekker, a Pretoria magistrate who is president of the Association of Regional Magistrates of South Africa, said: “This has been going on for years now and there is no indication that it is improving. We are looking at rape cases that take forever. Everyone is entitled to a fair and speedy trial, so you have no choice but to refuse a postponement at some point. Then the question is: was justice really done?”


People Opposing Women Abuse spokesman Carrie Shelver said rape cases relied heavily on DNA .

“But even though it’s so critical for the case to succeed, DNA evidence is so often not available.”

Patric Solomons, the director of the child-rights organisation Molo Songololo, also said rape cases were repeatedly postponed.
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