Day 29 of the Van Breda triple murder trial began with the Defence entering into what could be a long and tedious cross-examination of State witness Lieutenant Colonel Otto, an analyst in the state forensic laboratory.

Otto gave evidence yesterday from several reports she had compiled, which revealed that DNA was found on the axe, knife and the crime scene, as well as on Marli van Breda, the deceased van Bredas and the accused, Henri van Breda. 

Under cross examination, the Defense looked to scrutinize the integrity of the lab’s chain of custody and collections process. Otto appears to be a seasoned witness who has undergone cross-examination before, and was careful not to speculate or deviate from any evidence already given yesterday.

Otto explained today that samples go through various processes before reaching her. She stressed that she was not part of the actual DNA isolation process, and that her involvement consisted of analysing and compiling reports based on what had been sent to her.

The Defence Advocate Combrink began his cross-examination of Otto, focusing on the integrity of the lab. Here is the breakdown of that:

1. Standard Operating Procedures (“SOP’s”)

Combrink tried to ascertain how Otto could confirm, as she had in her leading evidence, that SOP’s in the process of working with samples in her laboratory had been followed.  Otto, certain in her evidence, told the court that:

If a sample reached Otto (stage in the process), then it must have followed the SOP’s or it would not be sent to her;

The laboratory has a Personnel Elimination Database – which is a control process. Every person who enters the facility, cleaners, service providers, etc., are all on this database;

The laboratory also has supervisors on duty to ensure conformance, as well as cameras, which they can check at any stage non-conformance, is detected, and;

With their chemistry being so sensitive should anyone not wear gloves (using an example given by Advocate Combrink) the analysts would pick up the profile of that person, using the Personnel Elimination Database, and in that event:

a) Register non-conformance;

b) Do a corrective action;

c) Rectify the action.

If at any stage, non-conformance with SOP’s was detected, the whole batch would be negated but tests will be re-done.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sharlene Otto
Lieutenant-Colonel Sharlene Otto


Non-conformance is always noted in case files. Otto objectively noted that in Henri’s matter, there were so many samples taken over a period of time (she had to compile four separate reports) that she could not remember that any non-conformance notes had been made but she could confirm that by the time the reports were compiled, if there were any non-conformance reports, they had all been rectified when she put together her reports.

Otto stated that she realized what the Defence was trying to get across but that it is not that simple. The SOP’s are an umbrella and are so prescriptive that she needs more detail on which SOP he is referring to and which sample.

2. Accreditation

Advocate Combrink raised an issue which Otto had certainly heard many times before – the laboratory which Otto works for is not accredited by the South African National Accreditation Services (“SANAS”).

Otto couldn’t explain why they were not accredited but told that court that she had been working at the lab for 24 years, further mentioning that “in all those years had aspired to become accredited”. Otto also joked that she only really wanted the lab to have accreditation so that she could avoid being asked this question in cross-examination going forward. 

Advocate Galloway came to Otto’s rescue here, saying she wasn’t the right person to ask, and she only knows the processes, checks and balances in place to ensure compliance. Accreditation and why we don’t have it is a question for top SAPS and Quality Management.

3. Sample Selections

Advocate Combrink also dealt with the process on how an analyst in the lab would select the samples to test.

We heard that, in items like Henri’s shorts and the duvets, there were a lot of stains, and on Henri’s shorts, there were in excess of 90 stains.  In these cases, Otta said Warrant Officer Joubert would take the duvet and shorts to his own lab and cut out the fabric which has a stain, or take a swab of that stain, seal it as evidence and send to Otto’s lab.

We will need to hear from Warrant Officer Joubert to confirm this, but from Advocate Combrink’s line of questioning, and from Otto’s predictions of where he was going, the SOP’s require every sample to be tested when there are multiple victims or attackers.

Otto explained that typically, if they had 50 samples taken from one room, they would randomly submit 10 or 15 samples for DNA testing and not all 50. They look at the evidentiary value in sample selection. She then had to explain that the main reason for this kind of sample selection was that DNA tests are expensive and they do not have unlimited funds, as they are a laboratory under SAPS.

This seemed like a possible concession for the State witness, but Otto said that didn’t happen in this case. She confirmed that in cases where there was more than one victim, like this one, all the samples were tested. Not all at once, but over a period of time, all of the samples were tested for DNA, hence the reason she had compiled four reports over an extended period of time.

I am not sure where Advocate Combrink is going with this because Otto told us, in the example of Henri’s shorts, all of the stains which tested positive for possible blood were analysed, so it seems that in the investigation of this matter the state didn’t save costs – they tested all 90+/-  blood stains on Henri’s shorts.

We will hear more on Thursday and this week, because of Woman’s Day tomorrow, Judge Desai has advised the court that the trial will run on Friday this week, so we will have another 2 court days this week for Otto’s cross examination.

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Photography K-leigh Siebritz / HM Media

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