Sexual offences cases are being withdrawn due to DNA processing backlog

Over 37,000 DNA specimens yet to be processed in the Western Cape alone

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Illustration by Lisa Nelson

  • There is a huge backlog of DNA testing.
  • This has affected court cases, particularly involving sexual offences where these reports are vital.
  • In the Western Cape alone, there are over 37,000 DNA specimens in sexual offences cases yet to be processed.
  • The National Prosecuting Authority says the backlog and subsequent outstanding reports from police labs have resulted in many cases either being postponed or withdrawn.

Over 37,000 DNA specimens in sexual offences cases are yet to be processed in the Western Cape alone. This backlog has had a significant impact on the delivery of justice in the courts, according to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA).

Gillion Bosman, chair of the Western Cape legislature’s Standing Committee on Social Development, said that the province’s Court Watching Brief Unit had monitored 161 cases related to gender-based violence, femicide and sexual offences between December 2020 and August 2021. Most of these cases were delayed or withdrawn due to DNA evidence not being available within a reasonable timeframe.

But the NPA says it has been involved in an initiative with the SAPS’s Forensic Science Laboratory to prioritise outstanding DNA reports in an attempt to fast-track time-sensitive court cases.

NPA spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said the backlog and subsequent outstanding reports from police labs had resulted in many cases either being postponed or withdrawn.

Call for Public Protector to intervene

Lobbyists at Action Society lodged a formal complaint with the Office of the Public Protector on Friday, requesting it investigate “as a matter of extreme urgency” the failure to deal with the backlog.

The organisation named the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, the DNA Oversight Board, the SAPS, the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) and President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“These parties have, through their inaction, or alternatively their unduly delayed and insufficient action, allowed this status quo to persist much longer than is acceptable,” Action Society said. “Victims of violent crimes and especially gender-based violence have been made to look on, powerless, as the police can no longer say with certainty where the evidence crucial to the outcome of their criminal trials are.”

Bosman has blamed the DNA backlog on mismanagement by SAPS in Pretoria, where a tender process dating back to 2019 fell through which would have ensured the maintenance of the DNA processing machines.

Correction on 2021-11-02 12:53

This article previously stated that the new Observatory Forensic Pathology Institute at the entrance of Groote Schuur Hospital would bring resources to evidence testing among other things. We were informed on 2/11/2021 that the institute is expected to improve forensic pathology service, but not testing. Specimens are sent to the SAPS lab for testing.

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