06 July 2011

DNA and criminals' rights

Crime in South Africa is no small matter. People are sick and tired of it, and many are desperate for a solution. But lest we forget: criminals have rights too.


South Africans are sick and tired of crime, and many are desperate for a solution. But lest we forget: criminals have rights too.

Health24 recently ran an article explaining what DNA evidence is, and how it can help to solve a crime. It also mentioned that at present South Africa's National DNA Database (also referred to as the Forensic DNA Database) contains about 120,000 DNA profiles, which is very small compared to countries such as the United States and United Kingdom whose databases each contain over 5 million profiles. 

One reason our database is so limited is that it currently consists only of DNA profiles from samples collected at crime scenes, and from persons arrested as suspects. Other countries' databases include the DNA profiles of convicted offenders, but owing to currently insufficent legislation, ours does not. An amendment to the Criminal Procedures Act may allow for the Database to expand to include DNA profiles of offenders – and if lobbyists in favour of the expansion of the database have their way, it would include the profiles of arrestees, whether they were convicted of the crime or not.

In a recent debate around the issue of DNA database, Poonitha Naidoo, with the Medical Rights Advocacy Network (MERAN) disagreed. She argued thatpolice corruption and brutality were rife, and left the system too open to abuse.  The retention of an innocent person's profile on the database would be a gross invasion of privacy. It was bad enough for an innocent person being wrongfully arrested, and to include that person's DNA on a database with that of criminals would be a double violation of rights, she contended.

Another aspect to consider was familial searching, where police may find a very similar DNA profile to that found at a crime scene, indicating the involvement of a family member. If police were to follow up on this information, innocent civilians could be implicated in crime. Although allowed to some extent in the UK and US, familial searching is not currently allowed in South Africa.

What's more is that DNA evidence alone is not proof of a criminal act. People shed DNA  all the time and a person could be implicated in a crime if they visited the scene before the crime took place, which in turn could lead to wrongful arrest.

Naidoo further argued that an increase in the number of DNA samples would constrain already overburdened forensic laboratory services, and highlighted her concern about the SAPS' ability to collect reliable DNA evidence.

Naidoo believes that DNA profiling is a valuable science and it is needed in the fight against crime, but argues that DNA profiling can be done without the databases where innocent people's profiles are preserved. She suggests that DNA evidence be used during the investigation and prosecution of a crime, but that it should be destroyed afterwards. - (Wilma Stassen, Health24, July 2011)

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SA's wasted crime fighter: DNA
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