After a near two-month postponement, the Van Breda triple murder trial resumed today.

To kick proceedings off on day 28, we heard evidence from State witness Lieutenant Colonel, Sharlene Otto – compiler of the DNA analysis reports.

Otto tested 216 samples collected from the crime scene and referenced samples given to her, which were sent to a forensic laboratory. In fact, there are so many samples that she had to condense her findings into four reports, which were placed into sworn affidavits – which have been now handed up into court.

Today, she told the court that there are various processes that go into DNA analysis, and she had used internationally-recognised systems and procedures to ensure that the results were true and reliable.

To place her findings into context, Otto told the court that it was obvious, when considering the DNA, that this was a family. With this, we do need to keep in mind that these DNA samples were only from family members, and their DNA could be found on any number of items in that house. In my view, this is exactly what makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the DNA matches in this situation. This was not just a family, but a family that lived together, and therefore their respective DNA would be all over the home and items inside the home.

For example, fingernail scrapings from Henri’s left hand referenced Teresa and Rudi’s DNA – but we don’t fully know yet from the witness if it would be unusual to find a sibling’s DNA on his fingernails.

It’s going to be interesting to hear the expert’s views on this, and to hear an explanation on how this evidence could have been passed onto Henri.

What is also immediately noteworthy, even in a home where the DNA being referenced is from persons living there, is that blood found on the shower floor appeared to be DNA belonging to Henri, Rudi and Teresa. One would assume that this would not be the result of a regular transfer between members of the home, but instead appears as if Henri showered and washed off blood, his own blood as well as that of Rudi’s and Teresa’s.

This evidence certainly needs to be further unpacked by the experts.

I assume that the Defence will be using the family’s living arrangements as the primary argument against this witness’ testimony when cross-examination begins, and whether the chain of events from collection to her interpretation are reliable and consistent. Otto seems ready for this scrutiny and I think she will be a tough witness to cross-examine.

So far, we know that various samples were taken from the scene and DNA samples from the family members were given to forensics to use in the analysis. This morning we heard the following:

  1. Finger nail scrapings from Henri’s left hand referenced Teresa and Rudi’s DNA (mentioned above);
  2. Blood collected from the corner of the shower floor referenced Henri, Teresa and Rudi’s DNA (mentioned above);
  3. Finger nail scrapings from Martin’s right hand referenced Rudi’s DNA;
  4. Touch DNA swab of the axe referenced Marli, Rudi and Teresa’s DNA;
  5. Touch DNA swab of the knife referenced Rudi’s DNA;
  6. Rudi, Martin, Teresa and Henri’s DNA was referenced to various stains on the Henri’s socks and shorts;
  7. Rudi’s DNA was referenced to most of the stains on the duvet cover;
  8. Teresa and Marli’s DNA was referenced to the samples taken from the top floor passage.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sharlene Otto
Lieutenant-Colonel Sharlene Otto

We have yet to hear about when this DNA may have been transferred, as we know that the knife was from a set of knives found in the home, but perhaps Rudi’s DNA was transferred to the knife before the attacks?

This afternoon, we heard the remainder of Lieutenant Colonel Otto’s evidence with Advocate Galloway asking Otto to assist the court in understanding her four reports, which are now entered into evidence.

When questioned about the blood sample found in the shower, Otto could not say for certain that the DNA found in the blood sample from the shower was blood DNA or skin cell DNA. She explained how DNA molecules are extracted, telling the court that the same method is used to extract white blood cells and skin cell molecules. Therefore, no one can never say with absolute certainty in a situation like this, that the DNA extract is from blood or skin cells.

Otto said that everyday soap and detergents used to clean can remove traces of DNA particularly skin cell molecules, but less so blood molecules. Blood is generally more resistant to being removed with soaps or detergents, she said, and for this reason she concluded that the DNA reference found in the blood sample on the floor of the shower was most likely a DNA reference of blood from Henri, Teresa and Rudi.

It’s going to be interesting to hear whether this evidence withstands cross-examination.  Advocate Botha had his own expert in court today who will be advising the Defense on the DNA evidence to enable Botha to test Otto’s evidence. This is going to be really important for both the State and Henri.

Otto also told the court that the 216 samples lifted from the scene were in her view “optimal.” Presumably, the State will argue the sample collection was sufficiently wide to rule out foreign DNA.

She said no “unknown” DNA had been detected in any of the samples. The DNA detected was all belonged to Van Breda family members.  Some of the samples had more of a presence of one family member than another, but in each of the 216 cases, it was only DNA of the family.

Otto referred to the Locard principle which has been referenced in this matter before. The principle is that every touch leaves a DNA trace, and that it is a two-way principle. An intruder would leave a DNA trace or a DNA trace of the crime scene would leave with the intruder.

Having said that, Otto qualified this principle and its application by saying that if an intruder had worn a balaclava and gloves and was fully covered when he was on the scene he may have left without leaving a trace of DNA. However, if there was an intruder, even if masked and gloved, he would have taken a trace of the scene with him.

Follow me on Twitter for live, to-the-minute updates tomorrow at day 29 of the Van Breda trial.

 

Photography K-leigh Siebritz / HM Media

Article written by

Tracey Ann Stewart

Legal expert and counsel for Highbury Media