Toxic meltdown at forensic labs

South Africa’s state forensic chemistry laboratories have ground to a virtual halt, according to the country’s top pathologists.

With a national backlog of about 20 000 toxicology samples awaiting processing, state pathologist and Wits forensic pathology lecturer Dr Gina Rowe said toxicology is running almost 10 years behind.

Jose van Rooyen, the new head of the health department’s Johannesburg toxicology lab, said it was sitting with “backlogs of about six years, more than 6 000 outstanding cases and only 12 analysts, five of whom have adequate experience”.

“The staff complement hasn’t changed since 1991,” Van Rooyen said. “Finding skilled staff is a major problem. We’ve had a huge staff turnover and the technology has changed.
We’re desperate.”

Professionals in the field agree that the situation is dire.

The family of 14-year-old Leon Booysen — who was found dead in a Heidelberg police cell in 2006 — has felt the brunt of the backlog, waiting 52 months for an inquest into the child’s death, which finally got under way this week. Booysen’s autopsy report took three-and-a-half years to complete because the pathologist had been waiting for the completion of the toxicology report.
“Unfortunately, the sad truth is that Booysen’s family is lucky,” a court official said. “In my experience the average wait for a toxicology report these days is five to eight years.”

Dr Johannes Steenkamp, the senior state pathologist at the Germiston mortuary, who did the autopsy on Booysen’s body, said that in the four years he has worked at the mortuary, performing autopsies on scores if not hundreds of people, he has received only two or three toxicology reports.

‘We’re dysfunctional’
Following a Wits Justice Project (WJP) investigation, which was published in the Mail & Guardian in October last year, it emerged that after years of waiting for Booysen’s toxicology report, Steenkamp issued a “final” autopsy report without having had sight of the toxicological findings. In fact, three weeks before the inquest was due to start, Steenkamp remained unaware of the existence of such a report.

“I have people phoning me three or four times a day, desperate to know when their reports will be completed,” Steenkamp said. “In the end I started issuing autopsy reports without toxicology reports because we couldn’t wait any longer.”

Johannesburg state mortuary’s principal specialist forensic pathologist, Dr Robert Ngude, said the state of all of the country’s three forensic toxicology labs—in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town—is a concern. “Often the toxicology results are the only findings that can close a case,” Ngude said.

Van Rooyen said she “completely understands” why the mortuaries are fed up and have given up waiting for their reports: “I sympathise fully with their situation. This is an essential service and we’re dysfunctional.”

Kenneth Xaba, the chief forensic analyst at the forensic chemistry laboratory in Hillbrow, confirmed that the Johannesburg lab is still tackling cases from 2005. “We’ve been unable to function since November 2009. All the cases have to join the queue and there are literally thousands.”

Last week, before President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address, the Democratic Alliance’s Athol Trollip created a list of “100 Ways to Improve SA”, including a suggestion that the forensic science laboratories be removed from the police department and the forensic chemistry laboratories from the health department and a new forensic laboratory service be created that would operate as a public-private partnership.

‘Dysfunctional criminal justice system’
Even so, how the current backlogs will ever be overcome remains a mystery. Operations in the Johannesburg forensic chemistry labs have collapsed in part because of renovations to the historic building that houses the labs. The building is old (murderer Daisy de Melker’s blood is believed to have been analysed here) and badly in need of renovation.

“We’re working with banging, scaffolding and dust and the renovation time has been extended because of bad planning and a change in construction companies,” said Van Rooyen. “We are occupying two buildings at the moment and not all our instrumentation could be moved to our temporary accommodation. We’re squatting here. The building is very old, the lifts haven’t worked for years—they were fixed last week—and the suppliers weren’t prepared to carry our instrumentation up the stairs.”

Van Rooyen did not think analysts would be able to access the necessary instrumentation until the end of March, when the renovations should be completed.

She said that, when things return to normal, each analyst can tackle 10 cases a month—a straightforward case should take “two months minimum”. However, access to instrumentation and space is only half the battle; accessing skilled forensic scientists is a far bigger problem.

Backlogs in the toxicology labs are a major factor in the collapse of the criminal justice system because forensic science and chemistry labs play a critical role in the prosecution and conviction of criminals.

“The breakdown in these services constitutes one of the most severe bottlenecks in our entire dysfunctional criminal justice system,” said the DA’s shadow minister of police, Dianne Kohler Barnard.

“Rising court case backlogs are increasingly driven by backlogs in our forensic laboratories and court cases dependent on forensic evidence are either being delayed or dropped.

“It’s not hard to imagine how a woman feels after being raped who has to wait five years for her case to be heard while her rapist roams around freely because of
laboratory backlogs.”

‘Test accuracy is questionable’
On a visit to the Pretoria forensic science lab last year, Kohler Barnard recalled seeing boxes of equipment that had never been unpacked.

“They had sat there for more than a year,” she said. “I wrote my initials in the dust. In addition, the fact that none of our labs have international accreditation means test accuracy is questionable from any of them. This is a problem in any court case, particularly if the findings are challenged.”

State mortuaries appear to be in far better shape. With only 40 trained forensic pathologists in South Africa dealing with 80 000 unnatural deaths annually and only nine specialists catering for 11300 cases a year in Gauteng, Professor Jeanine Vellema, chief specialist forensic pathologist of the southern cluster, said that the seven mortuaries in her cluster are all on track, at least in the case of uncomplicated autopsies. Vellema said an uncomplicated autopsy report with no ancillary investigations normally takes about two weeks to finalise.

“If we’re dependent on other specialisations like toxicology, we wait about seven years.”
This means professionals like Vellema have to explain repeatedly to distraught members of the public that the completion of an autopsy report, particularly in the case of an unnatural death, is totally dependent on forensic chemistry services.

Meantime, Booysen’s family is hoping the inquest will finally give some answers to the questions that have plagued his family members for years.

Out for blood
The Hillbrow blood alcohol laboratory has been closed for the past two months for renovations. In November 2010 the lab in Johannesburg had a backlog of more than 12 000 samples and about a three-year processing time.

“Many magistrates won’t keep a drunk driving case on the roll for more than 100 days,” DA shadow minister of police Dianne Kohler Barnard said. “They throw it out after that. In some areas it’s impossible to be charged with drunk driving because the matter is just repeatedly thrown out.”

These backlogs clearly affect the administration of justice, not to mention road safety and the impact on grieving families, practically and emotionally.

Take the case of Jacobus Schmidt, former DA MP and shadow deputy minister of energy, who died in a car accident in November 2009—the month the renovations started on the Johannesburg forensic laboratory buildings. “Like many others, his wife can’t get life insurance or parliamentary pension payouts until the completion of blood tests proving he wasn’t drunk at the time,” said Kohler Barnard.

“Few people can survive a three-year processing time without payouts from their spouses’ estates and many widows lose their homes while insurance payouts are frozen simply because of lab backlogs.”

Carolyn Raphaely is a member of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates miscarriages of justice.

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