Posted on June 13, 2005

Why Crime Pays In SA

Willem Steenkamp, Independent (Pietermaritzburg, SA), June 11

Criminals are getting off scot-free because of plunging standards at South Africa’s forensic laboratories that analyse vital evidence used in courts.

Forensic scientists and opposition parties blame “aggressive transformation policies” at state forensic laboratories for undermining the credibility of vitally important forensic evidence to convict murderers, rapists and even people driving under the influence of alcohol.

In a recent drunk-driving court case, a scientist at the Cape Town Forensic Chemistry Laboratory on whose report the case was largely based, admitted under cross-examination that he knew nothing about chemistry.

The case was thrown out and could open the door for people found guilty of drunk-driving to challenge the forensic reports from the laboratory where the “expert” works.

All three top forensic scientists who headed the Health Department’s forensic chemistry laboratories in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg have resigned or taken retirement.

Exacerbating the problem in KwaZulu-Natal is the fact that the forensic testing of blood samples and semen in rape cases is still done in the laboratories in Pretoria.

Police spokesperson Vish Naidoo said a forensic laboratory “would be welcomed” in KwaZulu-Natal. He said there was a continuous process of ensuring that all major cities had forensic laboratories.

At least two of the top forensic scientists left because of political pressure or because they were forced to appoint “transformation” candidates who did not have the necessary skills, experience or qualifications to carry out scientific work.

The former head of the Department of Health’s Forensic Chemistry Laboratory in Pretoria, Neels Viljoen, said he had designed a scientific test based on factual knowledge and expertise to ensure applicants met the minimum standards.

He said last year he had to appoint three senior forensic scientists. An Indian woman and a white woman and man met qualification requirements and were, in fact, the top candidates. However, he was told to appoint three black candidates who simply did not meet the requirements.

He refused and went on early retirement. He said some of the transformation applicants had scored less than 10 percent. He was told to drop the test because it was not acceptable to the culture of black applicants.

“This had nothing to do with culture. It was a simple scientific test based on factual knowledge to assess whether people had the knowledge to do the work. There is nothing wrong with transformation, but we cannot appoint people as scientists when they simply cannot do the work,” he said.

Viljoen warned that many of the forensic reports of the so-called scientists would simply not stand up in courts and once lawyers realised this, they would call in their own forensic experts to challenge such reports.

David Klatzow, an independent forensic analyst said many of the forensic results from the chemistry laboratories were questionable because skills and qualifications were not taken into account when people were appointed.

Because results were increasingly questionable, people could be found guilty when they were in fact not guilty, while guilty parties could walk free.

Roy Jankielsohn, Democratic Alliance MP whose portfolio is safety and security, described the situation at police forensic laboratories as “very serious”.

“Our information is that there are nearly 700 vacancies.”

Attempts by The Independent On Saturday to get comment from the Department of Health and the SA Police Service proved fruitless.