Shoddy systems at JHB forensic science lab puts cases at risk

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Successful criminal prosecutions in three provinces relying on the Forensic Science Laboratory in Johannesburg for analysis, including post-mortem results, could be jeopardised following a report recommending its closure because of shoddy systems. The Star reports that Braamfontein lab is saddled with samples, some of which are from criminal cases, from as far back as 2005 which have yet to be analysed and concluded, according to a February internal memorandum

The laboratory services Gauteng, Free State and North West.

According to The Star, a report conducted in 2017 by SizweNtsalubaGobodo recommended that the facility be closed until it came up with another strategy to ensure it met the standards. In 2017, only seven of the more than 50 staff members were deemed competent, the equipment used was found to have not been verified, there were no housekeeping procedures and some of the equipment in the facility was found to have been compromised.

According to the February internal note, the facility still doesn’t use “analytical balances to weigh samples”, with an insider asserting that this would have dire consequences for criminal cases.

“When it comes to policy, the management must be well versed, since our quality manual says the laboratory provides scientific support in the administration of acts such as the Criminal Procedure Act and the Inquest Act,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. The insider added that sample analyses done at the laboratory were not credible as they were rushed, with an alleged disregard for maintaining the chain of custody, which was crucial to a successful prosecution.

According to The Star, in 2016 it was reported that tons of blood and specimen (toxicology) samples, representing a 10-year backlog, were piling up to the roof in the lab because of space shortages, incompetence and severe lack of manpower. Others have gone missing. Heaps of spoilt samples were kept in waste buckets and cardboard boxes in an outside storage room which doesn’t have refrigerators to preserve them for accurate analytic results.

“Together with a lack of training (for staff), unvalidated methods and quality issues, it was evident that good lab practice wasn’t followed. With that the management must know there’s a possible violation of laws they are providing support to, and with that comes a possible violation of human rights.”

The report says these views are seemingly supported by internal documents from the lab, which shows that so dire is the backlog, where many samples aren’t stored properly, that analysts have resorted to not quantifying cases in order “to make space in the fridges”.

Health Department spokesperson Popo Maja acknowledged that a report had recommended the facility’s closure, but added: “Corrective measures have been implemented and regular internal audits are conducted to ensure high quality of our service offering.”

The Star reports that it had sent Maja the internal notes highlighting the dire state of the lab, but he maintained: “Quality controls are performed with all tests, thus the department is confident that results are accurate.”

Wayne Gordon, an expert who heads Trinitas Forensics, who also saw some of the lab’s memos, said a chain of custody was imperative to a successful prosecution. “It’s the foundation of a case, starting with where evidence is collected, analysed in the laboratory, up until it is presented in court,” he said.

The Star report

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