Murder convictions in SA remain low, as poor policing leaves cold cases

The collapse this week of the murder case of farm manager Brendin Horner is yet another example of poor policing leading to the arrests of the wrong suspects, resulting in the culpable remaining at large.

That is a common scenario in South Africa, experts said. The Horner case may become another statistic after the men accused of his murder, Sekwetje Isaiah Mahlamba, 32, and Sekola Piet Matlaletsa, 44, were released after being acquitted by the court.

The 21-year-old was a manager for the Bloukruin Estate at Paul Roux in the Free State, and his murder highlighted racial tensions in the country. Locals stormed the court, trying to get at the accused, which led to André Pienaar and SJ Fourie facing a raft of criminal charges for alleged incitement.

Mahlamba and Matlaletsa have since filed claims against Police Minister Bheki Cele and the National Prosecuting Authority for compensation for their unlawful arrest.

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Action Society’s Ian Cameron said in general the detection rate for murder was very low.

“The case is closed after the suspect is arrested and the investigation is conducted and then sent to court for prosecution,” he said. However, he said, in most cases this didn’t happen.

“The murder is reported but the suspect is not detected or arrested. “There are so many unsolved and cold cases in South Africa, it’s like we are building a legacy of career criminals in SA. We have hundreds of thousands of career criminals,” he said.

“Our prosecution rates are so low that these criminals return to the streets and are never accounted for. Why would there be justice on the ground level if there’s no justice at the senior level? We have government officials who were notorious criminals who stayed in their positions.”

Democratic Alliance Gauteng spokesperson for community safety Nico de Jager said murders continuously went unresolved because of a lack of resources, expertise and training of detectives. Detectives were understaffed and overworked, as some police stations had more than 300 open dockets per detective.

“Some of those crimes are smaller crimes, such as drunk driving and so on, but at the end of the day it’s an open docket that’s never closed or resolved.

“Backlogs in DNA testing contributed to why the cases were unresolved,” he said.

De Jager said the way police handled evidence also contributed to the problem.

“How many times do we hear about dockets going missing? But as much as we want to blame the police, we should put the blame fair and square on the minister [of police],” he said.

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De Jager added the process of wrongful arrest should be looked at again.

“The state shouldn’t get sued, the arresting officers should take the blame, then we can be rid of these unnecessary lawsuits against the state.”

Massive backlog of forensic cases

A criminologist at the University of Limpopo, Prof Jaco Barkhuizen, said unsolved murders, crimes and cold cases would continue to increase in SA.

“There are two reasons for this. We have a massive backlog of forensic cases and we have lost thousands of trained detectives,” he said.

Barkhuizen said detectives were left completely overburdened by crime dockets after many skilled officers had left the police service.

“This is a recipe for disaster. We need trained detectives that received the correct forensic evidence to identify, detect and solve the crime and apprehend the suspects,” he said.

“With these overburdened labs and overburdened detectives, cases will continue to go unsolved, the suspects will be released and crime will continue to surge.”

Barkhuizen said SA needed a functional police service with the correct units to solve crimes and public-private forensic partnerships to help with the backlog of evidence.

“There’s already a backlog and every day there is new murder or rape,” he said.

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