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What’s wrong with crime scene investigation in South Africa?

Words and photos by Damien Schumann

This article was first published in The Big Issue South Africa. It was a finalist in the INSP Awards 2015.

The Oscar Pistorius trial has placed the South African forensic system under the international spotlight. For the past eight years, the nation’s Forensic Pathology Services have been operating under the Department of Health and benefited from an injection of money, more staff and improved resources. But has the administrative shift resulted in better service? Not necessarily, says Dr David Klatzow, a private forensic scientist who’s been operating in South Africa for over 25 years. He cites the Oscar Pistorius case and argues that, technically, it should have been easy to solve.

So why then is it taking so long, and if a high-profile case can be botched up so badly, what does this mean for forensic science generally in South Africa and how an average case is handled? Damien Schumann goes behind the yellow tape to report for The Big Issue South Africa.

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By the Salt River circle in Cape Town on a Saturday morning, a buzz of trendsetters browse through designer shops while eating gourmet burgers and drinking craft beer.

A hundred meters up Durham road, white vans pull in and out of a grey building, very discreetly. Each one carries corpses that suffered unnatural deaths. Gunshots, stabbings and road accidents are the most common causes. They are generally assisted by alcohol or drugs.

The number of bodies at the Salt River Forensic Pathology Service has increased to the point where containers have had to be refrigerated to store them all. With a projected 3,500 admissions for 2014, this is one of the busiest morgues in the world, largely due to South Africa’s violent crime rates.

When I arrive, facility manager Wayne Mitten is too busy to speak to me, but he does stop by to say he hopes I get to see a “real crime scene: one where the police aren’t doing their job. Where the crime scene isn’t cordoned off and the officials are sitting in their car”.

It’s the job of a forensic officer to gather information from a crime scene and assist pathologists in concluding the cause of death. Poor crime-scene investigation is a sure way to get a case thrown out and let felons walk free.

The forensic pathology vans travel with no urgency. There are no sirens or flashing lights. They stick to the speed limit as I drive behind them, en route to my first crime scene. We enter Nyanga off the N2 and make our way down a double-carriage road until we find police tape cordoning off the scene of the crime. So far, so good.

The whole road is blocked off, but pedestrians are still allowed to walk along the pavement, some of them narrowly sidestepping the body lying in the gutter.

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It has nine bullet holes in it, which were placed there during rush-hour. A civilian starts putting sand over a bloodstain on the pavement, but a police officer (sitting in a nearby car) stops him. He tries again 10 minutes later and the same officer turns a blind eye.

Photos and GPS coordinates are taken, forms are signed and the body gets lifted into a thick, industrial plastic bag on a gurney that slides into the back of the van. Then it’s time to cruise back to Salt River. Just today, I’ll be accompanying the team on six trips to collect bodies that were involved in shootings. On a busy day, there can be as many as 15 collections.

Each forensic pathologist on the team is assigned three postmortems per day. The dissection of bodies is the easy part. It’s the paperwork and the psychological pressure of having to memorise the intricate details of how each person died every day that weighs the staff down. The workload is also huge, placing immense pressure on the pathologists to get through the backlog. But it’s all done in the hope that they’ll be called as expert witnesses in court and hopefully get to see justice for this atrocity – provided the police are doing their jobs. That’s what makes the work worthwhile for them.

Until 2006, the Forensic Pathology Services fell under the control of the South African Police Service (SAPS) – a situation that, during apartheid, made it easy for the government to fix evidence so it suited their objectives. Professor Lorna Martin, head of the Forensic Pathology Department at UCT, shakes her head as she recalls how she and other pathologists refused to work in the ’90s, until the SAPS agreed to establish appropriate working conditions for them. The bodies mounted up and eventually the SAPS had to succumb, supplying sufficient equipment, repairing the air conditioning, and resolving the fly problem at the morgue.

For the past eight years, the Forensic Pathology Services have been operating under the Department of Health. This injected money, increased staff and improved resources. It also did away with the hierarchical police system, affording pathologists greater respect.

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But has the administrative shift resulted in better service? Not necessarily, says Dr David Klatzow (pictured above), a private forensic scientist who’s been operating in South Africa for over 25 years. Just look at the Oscar Pistorius case, he says. Technically, it should have been an easy one to solve. So why, then, is it taking so long? And if a high-profile case can be botched up so badly, then what does this mean for forensic science in South Africa and the way that an average case gets handled?

Klatzow’s response is simple: “Police don’t discriminate. They screw up equally on every case.” And it’s difficult to argue with him, considering the rookie errors that have already been uncovered on Pistorius’s case: from walking through the crime scene to missing a bullet, wiping the gun, losing pieces of the door and even stealing Pistorius’s watches.

“Police don’t discriminate. They screw up equally on every case.”

Professor Martin believes the answer lies in a new forensic pathology facility, for which she is currently raising funds. Once established, it will be a one-stop forensic shop, including molecular diagnostics (currently done by the SAPS) and toxicology (currently handed over to National Health), on top of offering forensic education and general forensic pathology services.

If successful, the facility will offer forensic training of the highest standard, and improve the efficiency with which cases are handled. Toxicology tests, for example, currently have a six-year turnaround period, which Martin claims could be reduced to just 24 hours when the new lab is established.

Klatzow, however, is skeptical of these claims, questioning how science and medicine can function successfully under the same roof. But at present, with only three toxicology labs in the country and a backlog that runs into the thousands per lab, we do need to find a better system that, ideally, is not routed through national health services.

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Having to deal with the byproducts of such a violent society for so many years, Prof Martin doesn’t dream anymore. Literally. “I think it’s a coping mechanism,” she says wryly. “[But] if I can get this facility built, I could retire. I would have made a small difference.”

And it’s a difference that’s clearly in demand. A poster on the dry-walled passageway outside Martin’s office states that “one in two female murder victims are killed by male partners in abusive relationships”. Down the hall, a pair of white wellington boots stand by the door of facility manager Dr Marise Heyns’s office.

“If only we could teach gangsters to shoot straight and just use four bullets!” she chuckles. Finding the cause of death would be far easier if murderers were more precise in their actions, she explains. But homicide in South Africa isn’t just about murder. Far too often, what we see is fear or violent revenge that ends in murder, and the results of these reactions are seldom precise.

According to Dr Heyns, the biggest issue in forensic science is the management of a crime scene and the translation of the science in court. Building on her experience in forensics at Queens University in Belfast, where she specialised in the social justice trend of kneecapping, Heyns now runs a seven-module forensic science programme at UCT, which includes a simulation exercise in which a crime scene is recreated and students have to conduct the case from arrival on the scene to seeing it closed in court.

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Part of Heyns’s training is done with SAPS facilities, including a role-play simulation centre in Bishop Lavis. “[But] we aren’t allowed access to the police-training curriculum,” she says. “Without a more transparent system of how the police are being trained, it’s difficult to know where they’re going wrong. From the outside, it appears that they are well equipped with training resources, but then why are such basic and fatal errors being made on crime scenes? We can only expect a level of service to which people are trained, which suggests poor training.”

Then there are the extremely high risks and low rewards of the job. Let’s face it: whether a police officer risks his life apprehending criminals or simply visits crime scenes late and makes reports that contain sufficient errors to restrict further work on the case, they still earn the same salary. This seems especially unjust when lawyers’ fees can be as high as R60,000 per day, while a police officer with up to 12 years of experience can earn R10,000 per month. With the resulting lack of morale, it seems understandable that expensive watches could go missing from crime scenes, or blunders could occur at wealthy victims’ homes.

“Without a more transparent system of how the police are being trained, it’s difficult to know where they’re going wrong.”

The courtroom is where forensic science can finally set the record straight – but it can also get lost in translation.

A key aspect of the job for expert witnesses like Klatzow is to explain their findings as clear, unequivocal facts. Their testimony plays an essential role in reaching a fair, unbiased verdict.

In a criminal case like Pistorius’s, the defence’s goal is to prove reasonable doubt. This motivates the lawyers to nitpick at every piece of evidence, rattling witnesses with invasive questions in a bid to find – and sometimes create – cracks in the prosecution’s story. Good experts must be able to hold their ground and argue without hesitation.

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It is here the flaws in the system are exposed. Shoddy investigation work won’t make scientific sense and a good defence lawyer will know the legal loopholes and take advantage of them. Klatzow, in fact, started his own career in this way, using technicalities to get drunk drivers off their charges. He knew the shortcomings of taking blood samples, and so with a few quick questions he could cast doubt on the accuracy of the tests.

Ultimately, forensic science is about finding the truth. About not taking sides. About stating the facts. South Africa’s effort to establish a top-quality forensic facility is testament to its commitment to doing exactly that. And if this can reduce the timeframe of concluding cause of death by six years, then South Africa will be a better, safer place. Not just for one case, but for all.

 

Science never lies

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It’s a sunny winter’s day outside Dr David Klatzow’s home in Rondebosch.

Inside the office of the private forensic scientist, we’re examining gunshot wounds. Surrounded by his organised clutter, we compare crime-scene photos of a 1980s case known as the Gugulethu Seven, in which seven people were shot by the police and it was claimed they were planning to attack the officials. But a Cape Times journalist, Tony Weaver, uncovered a very different story: the seven surrendered and were shot by the police in cold blood, while lying on the ground.

On Klatzow’s desk is a particularly gruesome image: a man’s face, his jaw blown off by a shotgun. Warrant Officer Barnard, who fired the shot, claimed he was 20 metres away when he pulled the trigger, and that he was pursuing the perpetrator.

Klatzow begs to differ. He pulls out an A4 flipchart that he’s shot with the same kind of shotgun at varying distances. At four metres, the pellets have already dispersed too extensively to make a wound like the victim’s. Comparing the holes, it’s clear that the victim must have been less than a metre away when shot. There’s also a black burn mark on his cheek – a dead giveaway, caused by the smoke and gases emitted by a gun at short range.

This was just some of the evidence proving the execution happened at point-blank range. But at the time, the court still couldn’t be swayed to believing that this was a planned murder.

Justice was eventually served during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, when it was discovered that government agents had motivated the entire incident. But forensic science had told the truth from the very beginning.

 

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