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 DNA Innocence Project

DNA Innocence Project

Background

The DNA Innocence Project is based in the Forensic DNA Laboratory in the Department of Biotechnology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).  The project focuses on the use of forensic DNA technology to exonerate wrongly convicted inmates serving sentences in prison.  It is modelled along the same lines as the Innocence Project in the USA where there have been 365 exonerations to date, 20 of them were on death row and on average these prisoners spent 14 years in prisons. 

DNA testing has been a major factor in changing the criminal justice system. It has provided scientific proof that our system convicts and sentences innocent people, and that wrongful convictions are not isolated or rare events. Most importantly, DNA testing has opened a window into wrongful convictions so that we may study the causes and propose remedies that may minimize the chances that more innocent people are convicted.

Presently prisoners can apply to have their case considered by the DNA Innocence Project. Initially only cases where biological material was collected from the crime scenes will be considered.  This material will be analysed in the Forensic DNA Lab at UWC which specialises in genotyping highly degraded DNA.  All DNA Innocence Project clients will go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not DNA testing of evidence could prove their claims of innocence.  

 

The Project will specifically focus on cases where persons were convicted and post-conviction DNA testing of evidential material may establish their innocence. Or, where persons were convicted when DNA testing was not yet available or where earlier scientific processes were used that were not as discriminating as current methods.

 

It is important to note that the DNA Innocence Project is not a substitute for traditional methods of appeal and review and will only become involved in selected cases where there is a real claim of factual innocence and where all the other legal remedies have been exhausted.

 

In addition to its primary objective, to assist in individual cases of wrongful conviction, the DNA Innocence Project will try to raise public awareness of the prevalence, causes and costs of wrongful convictions, and will advocate for legal reforms that will hasten the identification and release of innocent prisoners. Or, to ensure that convictions are based on reliable and valid, especially forensic, evidence. It is the vision of the DNA Innocence Project that no person will ever go to prison for a crime that he/she did not commit.

 

The DNA Innocence Project at UWC does not charge for its services.

 

Review process

 

Before a case is taken on there will be an extensive screening process that involves three levels of review.

 

1. Initial review of letters

When the DNA Innocence Project is contacted by prisoners who seek assistance, they will be asked to write a letter to the Project in which the following information should be included: A description of the sentence; a brief description of the case; an explanation of the claim of actual innocence; an indication of the appeal status of the case; and the most recent legal representative’s name and contact details.   When a prisoner writes to the DNA Innocence Project an initial review of the request is conducted by a screening panel. Due to the limited resources of the DNA Innocence Project, the remaining incarceration time of an inmate’s sentence will be used as a determinant of whether to accept the case.

 

2. Review of questionnaire

Following an affirmative review of preliminary letter, the inmate is sent a questionnaire to complete. Once received, the questionnaire receives a thorough review by our screening panel.

 

3. Review of complete case: Trial documents

If a viable claim of actual innocence appears ripe in the documents submitted, the DNA Innocence Project will request the entire trial record. This includes all trial transcripts and extant appeals, as well as police and forensic reports. The record is then assigned to a group of two (or more) investigators to commence their work summarising it. The Executive Committee will then make the final decision whether to take on the case and will also liaise with possible legal representatives as well as the SAPS Forensic Laboratories in order to obtain samples of the forensic evidence related to the specific case.

 

Submitting an application

 

Prior to submitting an application to the DNA Innocence Project you are advised to first contact us by email or phone to seek guidance on preparing your initial letter to the Project.

 

Our contact details are as follows:

Postal address:

DNA Innocence Project

Forensic DNA Laboratory

Department of Biotechnology

University of the Western Cape

Robert Sobukwe Road

Bellville 7535

South Africa

 

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