A groundbreaking collaboration between the South African Police Service (SAPS) and Western Cape’s Forensic Pathology Services is utilising digital facial reconstruction to identify remains found in several Cape Town cold cases.
Cape Town tackles cold cases with digital facial reconstruction
Using the victims’ remains and cutting-edge technology, law enforcement officials, working in tandem with the provincial forensics department, piloted the project focusing on four cold cases registered between 2020 and 2022.
Two cold cases involve three victims whose remains were discovered in Mitchell’s Plain in 2020. While it’s unclear if the cases are related, one of of the bodies was found in Lentegeur.
The identikits below also depict a digital reconstruction of two more murder victims from separate cases. One Doe was discovered in Philippi East in 2021, and the other victim, in Mowbray, in 2022.
“Anyone who may have information based on the attached identikits, is urged to contact Detective Sergeant Yolande van der Merwe on 082 411 3808,” the police pleaded.
South Africa’s growing victim identity crisis worsens every year
In a June 2023 op-ed for Mail and Guardian, Dr Kathryn Smith from the Department of Visual Arts highlighted South Africa’s ongoing crisis with missing and unidentified persons.
Annually, up to 10,000 individuals are admitted to the nation’s medico-legal laboratories without identification, Dr Smith revealed.
“Unless a fingerprint comparison returns a positive result, the process of identifying an unknown person is seldom straightforward. In a country where medical care is out of reach for most — meaning that dental records are not available — we simply cannot only rely on the methods accepted as scientific and primary for forensic identification, namely fingerprinting, dental or DNA,” she wrote.
Digital facial reconstruction emerges as a vital tool in these cases, especially where traditional methods like fingerprinting, dental records, or DNA analysis are insufficient or unavailable.
This technique is particularly useful in cases involving severe decomposition or traumatic injury.
South Africa’s legal framework allows the state to release unclaimed bodies after thirty days, often insufficient for complete identification processes.
Consequently, many bodies remain unidentified for extended periods, exacerbating storage issues and impacting both social and criminal justice systems.