JOHANNESBURG – It took a distraught Lindie Mdluli several days to summon the courage to go to a South African police station after she was raped in 2007. When she got there, Mdluli says that police officers didn't discuss the kind of investigative DNA work that she had seen on television detective shows.
"Nobody told me about crime-scene DNA," said 37-year-old Mdluli, whose assailant was arrested but later released. "From watching TV, I thought they were going to ask for my clothes, but nobody asked."
Mdluli's story of failed opportunities to build a criminal case is common in South Africa, which struggles with high rates of rape and murder. In a rare bright spot, a new law will expand a state DNA database used to fight crime by compelling police to take samples from convicted offenders as well as suspects in crimes ranging from homicide to theft, a major undertaking that will test the nation's troubled police force.
Dozens of countries have legislation similar to the so-called DNA Act, which was signed by President Jacob Zuma on Jan. 27. The goal is to match more offenders, including many who break the law more than once, with their crimes, exonerate the wrongly accused and crack cold cases. It will take a while to implement nationwide. Some 100,000 police are to receive training in the collection of genetic evidence; education starts in April and is expected to last five years.
While South Africa's forensic experts are highly skilled, police on the beat have been tarnished by cases of corruption, mismanagement and even violent crimes. Last year, a South African magistrate harshly criticized a police detective for shoddy work in the murder investigation of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee athlete who says he killed his girlfriend after mistaking her for an intruder in his home. Pistorius' murder trial starts March 3.
Last week, top South African police officials said they were committed to enforcing the DNA Act during a forensic science conference in Pretoria, the capital.
Activist and lawyer Vanessa Lynch said of skepticism of the police: "I just want to put a positive spin, instead of it becoming a mudslinging match against the police."
Lynch co-founded the DNA Project, an advocacy group that campaigned for the new South African law, after her father, John, was killed in his Johannesburg home in 2004. His clothes, a potentially valuable source of DNA samples, were discarded. Police did not take DNA samples from bottles from which the attackers had been drinking before the murder. Family and friends cleaned up the crime scene before investigators arrived, inadvertently destroying evidence.
The new law will give rape victims, including children, "a voice to speak for them," said Mdluli, the rape victim who was a panelist at a Johannesburg conference last week on the measure. She recalled her discomfort at pitting her word against her alleged assailant, a man she knew, without the support of DNA evidence. She eventually dropped the case.
Another woman at the conference, Karen Howell, immediately had DNA samples taken after she was raped in 2011 in her Johannesburg home, set up a neighborhood network to track her two assailants, called police to arrest one of the men after she saw him walking in a street and hounded police until they put a more responsive investigator on her case. Last year, the two attackers received lengthy jail terms.
"I had to help the police, help educate the police, even the courts," Howell said.
South African police recorded about 66,000 sexual offenses between April 2012 and March 2013. A separate 2010 study in Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province, concluded that only one in 25 rapes was reported to the police. The research, conducted partly by the South African Medical Research Council, also said one in four women in the province has experienced sexual violence.
The test under the new DNA law is as simple as a Breathalyzer test, requiring a swab inside the cheek that takes half a minute. Police must deliver a DNA sample to a lab within 30 days of taking it, and the law has another 30 days to analyze it and load it onto the database. A backlog of cases could also balloon as laboratory technicians try to cope with a flood of new DNA data.
Currently, the DNA database of the South African police has 180,000 profiles, in a country of about 53 million people. Lynch said the collection of several million profiles would make it far more effective.
Getting samples has already proven effective.
Last week, a state prosecutor asked an alleged rapist in a Johannesburg trial why his DNA samples were found on a 4-year-old girl whose body was left hanging on a hook in an abandoned building, The Star newspaper reported. It quoted the suspect, Modise Motapane, as saying: "I don't know."
On Monday, Motapane was sentenced to life in prison.