Research Article: Medico-Legal Findings, Legal Case Progression, and Outcomes in South African Rape Cases: Retrospective Review

Date Published: October 13, 2009

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Rachel Jewkes, Nicola Christofides, Lisa Vetten, Ruxana Jina, Romi Sigsworth, Lizle Loots, Chris Beyrer

Abstract: Rachel Jewkes and colleagues examine the processing of rape cases by South African police and courts and show an association between documentation of ano-genital injuries, trials commencing, and convictions in rape cases.

Partial Text: In 2008 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 (2008), which declared rape to be a threat to global security—an act recognising that rape violates its victims’ human rights and has particularly destructive social consequences. The Council also recognised that rape may cause considerable physical and psychological morbidity. Health systems have a critical role in responses to rape, yet in most countries the health sector response is underdeveloped [1]. Post-rape services generally receive few resources, service providers often lack specific training for and confidence in examining victims and interpreting their findings for the courts, and the health needs of victims often remain unmet [2],[3]. In most countries rape services need resources and development, and research has a valuable role to play in guiding efforts to appropriately focus post-rape health services.

Ethics approval was given by the University of Witwatersrand, Faculty of Health Sciences Ethics Committee.

Table 1 shows the proportion of cases of rape reported to the police and reaching each stage of the criminal justice system process for adults and children. Although an arrest was made in almost half of cases, there was only a conviction for a sexual offence in 3% of adult and 7.4% of children’s cases. Examining attrition by stage we see that a trial was commenced in only 27% of adult and 38% of child cases where the suspect was arrested and charged in court. Convictions for sexual offences were achieved in a similar proportion of adult and child cases (30% and 41%) commencing trial.

We examined a subset of rape cases where there was a forensic medical examination of the victim and have shown a precipitous decline in the proportion of cases reaching each sequential stage in the criminal justice system, with suspects only being convicted in about one in 20 of the documented rape cases. We described a parallel decline in the proportion of cases in which the chain of activities were performed to enable specimens to be collected and sent to a laboratory so that a report on the presence and analysis of DNA would be potentially available for use in trials. Substantial flaws in the system were evident, with forensic evidence collection kits not always being completed, when indicated; those completed often not being sent to the laboratory for analysis; and the suspect’s blood infrequently being drawn. As a result of this, DNA reports were almost never available to be used in court cases. Although DNA is often presented as a key to solving cases and convicting offenders, we have shown that when available, DNA more certainly led the courts to acquit [15], usually because no match to the accused was established, although medical evidence of injuries may have been available. This is not a positive outcome for a rape complainant, but in a criminal justice system that determines cases on absence of reasonable doubt, it would establish “reasonable doubt” that the accused was the culprit and thus assist the court.



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