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South Africa's Newly Expanded DNA Database Is Already Netting Criminals

Finally, a win for forensics in crime-ridden Johannesburg.
Image: Shutterstock.

Last week, Modise Motapane, the suspected rapist of a 4-year-old girl found hanging from a hook in an abandoned building in Johannesburg, was asked in court why his DNA was found on the girl's body.

"I don't know," said Motapane, as the Associated Press reports. On Monday, he was handed a lifetime jail sentence.

It's perhaps the latest criminal case closed in South Africa thanks to the country's sweeping forensics overhaul. The Criminal Law (Forensics Procedure) Amendment Bill, signed on January 27 by President Jacob Zuma, "will expand a state DNA database used to fight crime," the AP adds. To that end, the so-called DNA Act requires compulsory DNA sampling of both arrestees and convicted offenders, something proponents of the measure say will make way for comparative searches across DNA profiles.

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But that's only if and when the National Forensic DNA Database of South Africa (NDAA) truly gets off the ground. The troubled South African Police Service (SAPS) has a long way to go before it can roll out a robust DNA database nationwide; SAPS does manage an existing DNA database, albeit one currently comprised of just 180,000 profiles. Compare that with the US— which would do well to publicize all its criminal DNA records—where over 6.4 million DNA profiles had been logged from arrestees, suspects, and convicts (including 242,000 forensic profiles gathered from crime scenes) in 2008, according to estimates from Interpol.

Ideally, the NDAA will grow to at least several million profiles over the next few years. That's according to Vanessa Lynch, whose DNA Project has been instrumental in navigating the bill through legal red tape since 2004. The goal will be threefold: harness DNA to match more and more (repeat) offenders to their offenses, to acquit the wrongfully accused, and, of course, to help crack cold cases.

“By helping to convict, or rule out a suspect at an early stage, a DNA database saves valuable police and other crime detection resources, leaving them free for other investigations, or to be deployed towards crime prevention,” Lynch told Engineering News a few months back.

As it stands, the current SAPS database has a pair of indices, "a case work index containing profiles derived from crime scene samples, and the reference index, containing profiles of known people, such as victims, suspects, volunteers and personnel (used for elimination purposes)," reported Engineering News. The impending NFDD will broaden significantly, to a half dozen indices:

  • The Crime Scene Index, made up of forensic DNA profiles sketched from biological evidence found at crime scenes;
  • The Arrestee Index, made up of profiles for every person who committed, or is suspected to be behind, a Schedule 8 offense, which includes homicide and theft;
  • The Convicted Offender Index, made up of profiles of all those convicted of Schedule 8 crimes;
  • The Investigative Index, made up of profiles of people who had DNA samples taken either by warrant or informed consent, for the express purposes of further investigating given crimes;
  • The Elimination Index, made up of profiles of both everyone who surveys crimes scenes and everyone with a hand in the official processing of crime scenes, and finally;
  • The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Index, made up of profiles of missing or otherwise unidentified individuals, and also of unidentified remains.

For now, some 100,000 SAPS officers are on deck to learn how to collect genetic evidence beginning this April. Training is expected to run through 2019.

That's still a ways off. But South Africa is nevertheless joining the dozens of other countries with DNA Act-like legislation already on the books. Finally, a win for forensics in a part of the world where beat cops are repeatedly stymied by corruption, shoddy management, and occasionally violent crime. And where young girls are still raped and hung to die.

@thebanderson