Forensic Evidence Failures Obstruct Justice

A lack of equipment and resources has hamstrung Zimbabwe’s law enforcement, leading to wrongful detentions, delays — and many unsolved cases.

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Forensic Evidence Failures Obstruct Justice

Illustration by Matt Haney, Global Press Journal

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Josephine Mano vividly recalls the night she lost her 7-year-old niece.

“She stood by the wall, unable to move, and fell on the ground,” Mano says. “I thought she had fainted. It didn’t cross my mind that she would die. She wasn’t even sick.”

Nicole Mano, Josephine’s niece, was bleeding internally after having been raped and sodomized. Hours earlier, the girl had told her aunt what happened. Now she lay dying.

After Nicole perished, police collected her DNA and confirmed the assault. They also took DNA of the semen found on her and said they would match it with a suspect’s sample. Then nothing happened.

That was 2018.

“We never got [the] results,” Mano says.

Mano’s lament speaks to one of Zimbabwe’s major obstacles to justice — the lack of forensic evidence, or the failure to use it effectively. A dearth of both up-to-date equipment and resources has hamstrung law enforcement as the accused are sometimes unjustly detained and other cases suffer yearslong delays or go unsolved.

Forensic evidence involves the use of conventional scientific tools to address legal questions, says Dr. Sungai Mazando, a forensic genetics specialist and senior lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. In law enforcement, forensic evidence includes fingerprints, fibers, ballistics and DNA from body fluids, saliva and blood. “In short,” Mazando says, “it is when law meets science.”

Mazando studied 363 homicide cases in Zimbabwe from 2014 to 2019 and found that law enforcement analyzed DNA in only 30 of them. Of those, 23 were resolved.

“There was a strong linear relationship between the number of concluded cases and use of DNA evidence among cases with known suspects,” Mazando says.

Two decades of economic crisis — driven partly by corruption, government overspending and the uneven implementation of reforms — has cobbled the country and led to high rates of inflation. Law enforcement lacks sufficient resources, guidelines and technology related to forensic evidence, Talent Chipandu, then a law student at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe, says in a report on DNA and digital evidence.

There is also a dearth of qualified personnel who can “interpret, test and clarify these forms of evidence” in Zimbabwe, Chipandu writes.

“There was a strong linear relationship between the number of concluded cases and use of DNA evidence among cases with known suspects."Forensic genetics specialist

Last October, Ronny Chinomungu couldn’t track down his sister, Wendy Chinomungu. She was later found unconscious in a faraway field.

“She was beaten, raped and could not speak, and after a few days in hospital, she passed away,” Chinomungu says. “We were devastated.”

The family expected police to lead a post-mortem, but nothing happened, Chinomungu says. Only when his family went public on national radio did police act, confirming that the beating and rape had killed his sister. By then, she had spent two months in the mortuary.

Police still haven’t arrested a suspect.

In other cases, the lack of forensic evidence leads to false allegations. In 2011, Cynthia Manjoro, then 26, was arrested on a murder charge, accused of killing a police officer. Her vehicle had been found at the shopping center where the homicide occurred.

“There was no forensic evidence that was collected at the scene to tie me to the case,” she says. She was acquitted and released after nine months in jail.

In 2018, she received compensation of $2,000 — less than the monthly salary she earned as a communications manager before her incarceration.

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A Zimbabwean prosecutor who declined to be named for fear of losing her job says, “Forensic evidence in Zimbabwe, we can say it’s actually nonexistent.”

In cases of rape, assault and murder, she says, the state relies on eyewitness testimony and physical evidence that doesn’t undergo forensic examination. She points to a lack of resources: Police can’t gather adequate forensic evidence because there aren’t enough kits in cases of rape, for example.

“With the availability of forensic evidence, [some cases] would be so easy to solve,” the prosecutor says.

Zimbabwe Republic Police spokesman Paul Nyathi says the forensic investigation unit faces a host of challenges. A lack of equipment has left the unit overwhelmed, he says in a written response, forcing police to outsource forensic samples to organizations that also are swamped. He notes that the unit is based in Harare, the capital, but serves police throughout the country.

Mazando’s research found that police solve about 15% of homicide cases each year — a rate that would improve with more forensic evidence, he says.

But forensic evidence requires an investment in “both human and financial resources,” he says. “The legislative framework must also evolve to cater for new and advanced ways of handling, storing and processing evidence.”

Mano says she still thinks about her niece and worries she will never find closure. She followed up with police, but her efforts didn’t yield results. Now she has given up.

“I think of her whenever I hear children’s laughter,” she says. “Nicole was a happy child, always cheerful. The scar that was left in my heart by her death will never heal.”

Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on agriculture and the economy.

Translation Note

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.