Ten years later, success for driving force behind DNA bill
Three weeks after Vanessa Lynch’s father was shot seven times in his home in Bryanston, she watched the detectives close the file in front of her.
There were no suspects, no witnesses and no evidence. Her father’s killers would never be brought to book. “How can this be?” Lynch thought. Her father had fought off the killers, making it likely that their DNA was all over his clothes.
They had also been drinking in the garden before the murder, leaving bottles full of valuable spittle behind.
But the crime scene had been contaminated, evidence destroyed by neighbours and police walking all over the scene, and friends cleaning up the scene afterwards to spare the family.
Her father’s clothing was thrown away, and the bottles ended up on a rubbish dump somewhere.
And even if DNA could be salvaged from Vanessa’s father, John, back in 2004 there was no central DNA database in South Africa that could have linked murderers to a suspected gang that was hitting the area at the time.
Despite having state of the art forensic laboratories, DNA was handled on a case-by-case basis. Thus it was directly linked to suspects in the current investigation, and not to other criminals already being processed in other cases. Her father’s murder changed Lynch’s life profoundly.
“Losing someone you love so dearly touches your life. Before my father’s murder I was complacent, I had a real good life. Losing my father so violently changed me,” she said.
“But with the work I do now, I don’t want to be angry with the people. I want to do something that ensures this does not happen again. If you want to change something you can. So many people doubted that I could change the system. They said I was farting against thunder. But I believed.”
Ten years later she cheered loudly in Parliament as a bill, for which she was essentially the driving force, was passed this week. The bill will ensure that in future murderers like those of her father will not go unpunished.
The DNA bill, formally known as the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act, will allow DNA to be taken from all current prisoners, parolees, and detainees and suspects in respect of offences such as rape, murder and armed robbery.
In future police officers will do a simple “buccal swab” in less than a minute where they collect buccal cells from the inside of the cheek. The results of the DNA profile will be entered into the database, and the sample destroyed within 30 days. Detectives will then be able to search the database the same way they search the fingerprint database for a match.
Lynch says given the number of repeat offenders in South Africa, as well as the recidivistic nature of many crimes, there is a strong possibility that eventually a culprit convicted of a similar crime will be matched to the current crime.
But it has been a ten-year emotional rollercoaster road for Lynch to pump her fist in victory. “I had to be tenacious. It was not easy. There were a thousand times when I wanted to give up, but the next morning I woke up and said I can’t let this fight go. There are too many people who depend on this.”
Her journey started with many questions.
“After my father’s murder I realised we have a problem here. We have one chance. Why is it being destroyed? Why are we not collecting evidence?”
These issues led her to the idea a possible national DNA database in South Africa.
At the time the idea was foreign to Lynch. As a commercial lawyer, she had never heard of it. The US has had a DNA database since 1998, and it has become a formidable crime fighting tool, not only to solve current cases but also to bring long forgotten cold cases to book and exonerate convicted innocent people.
Lynch was adamant that South Africa, with its huge crime problem, should also have such a system.
She also got into contact with Rob Matthews, father of Leigh Matthews, who had had a much better experience in crime scene preservation in his daughter’s case.
Together with a geneticist, Dr Carolyn Hancock, they founded The DNA Project. Apart from teaching crime scene preservation to police officers, they pushed hard for the new DNA legislation.
Lynch says when she first went to the police and government with her idea of the national database, there was not a lot of enthusiasm.
“There were people in the forensic laboratories that were pushing hard, but there were also people that didn’t see the strategic value of a database,” Lynch explains. The policeman who became one of her biggest allies in getting the legislation passed, wanted to kick her out of his office the first time he saw her, but when he saw her presentation, he became convinced.
But political will was also a huge obstacle. “If I hadn’t pushed so hard, so vehemently, we would not have this. I found little political will to get this going,” she says. Once there is political will, thing started coming together, Lynch says. It was just a great pity that it took 10 years for the legislation to pass, she adds.
“It was remarkable how long it took to get the legislation in place,” she says. “But we have it now and the technology has also improved so much in the last decade that this will be stronger now than ever.”