Forensic services get their own body of evidence
New academy to promote professionalism and scientific integrity in the industry
Life does not imitate art: when a murder happens in real life, the collection and analysis of DNA evidence is not as you would see it on the hit television show CSI.
It is, instead, a complicated business that stretches across disciplines, and can be riddled with tiny loopholes through which murderers and the innocent alike can be mistaken for one another.
Currently, South Africa runs short of experts, with some labs processing more than 4,000 cases a year.
Now, for the first time, an independent professional body has been launched to regulate the country’s forensic services.
The South African Academy of Forensic Sciences (SAAFS) is a “multidisciplinary organisation” which will “promote professionalism and scientific integrity” across all disciplines related to forensic science, say the founders.
Ryan Blumenthal, a forensic pathologist based at the University of Pretoria, says that “creating this structure is an incredible first step and nothing but a strong sense of duty can entice us to do this. We have skin in the game – laws come and go, ethics stay”.He encourages the public to see forensic science as a broad field, and says it stretches “from the chemical analysis of a paint chip to the isolation of a genome, from the determination of cause of death, to whether a driver was under the influence of alcohol, and from arson investigation to psychiatric analysis of victims of crime ... ”
Blumenthal encourages all professionals whose work relates to that to “use their knowledge in the pursuit of justice”.
Regulation and the pursuit for accuracy is crucial for all countries. A global analysis of causes of wrongful conviction found that eyewitness errors accounted for 71% of the wrongful convictions, but the second-biggest issue was forensic science testing errors, which accounted for a staggering 63% of wrongful convictions.
Dr Antonel Olckers, a founding member who is an expert in DNA, says: “Forensic science, as we sit, is unregulated and peer-reviewed, so the best thing for the scientists to do is regulate ourselves.”She said it had been a “very long road for us to found SAAFS” and that the slogan “science serving justice” encapsulates their purpose.
“Our role is not to be the judge or the court. As a forensic scientist, you have one role, and that is to give expert testimony to serve the court, whether contracted by the state or the defence.”
She said SAAFS could “move justice forward” and could help South Africa to adopt some of the global advances that had been made in the field of forensic science.
Forensic analysis has appeared in several high-profile local court cases recently.
In the Jason Rohde murder trial, two forensic pathologists claimed different reasons for the cause of his wife Susan’s death, and in the Henri van Breda murder trial, conflict erupted in court over strands of hair, drops of blood and other pieces and processes around forensic evidence.
Such cases highlight the complicated nature of the discipline.