April 17, 2015
A major milestone has been reached: the state has finally finished presenting its case.
It’s taken more than sixty court days (and, with all the delays, over a year) for the trial to get to this point. Neither side can be blamed for the slow progress. This is a massively complex case involving a lot of circumstantial evidence. The state has had to call witnesses from overseas, present handwriting analysis and lead three volatile witnesses (Conway Brown, Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reinecke). As the trial progressed, the investigation led to new witnesses or fresh evidence, while the defence continued its relentless attack on every aspect of the case. This sometimes forced prosecutors to go out and do more work, slowing the trial down. The defence also drew the state into several technical, legal side-battles and, by refusing to make any admissions, left prosecutors with no choice but to call witness after witness to try and preserve the chain of evidence.
The last witness to be called by prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas was policeman Mike Sales. You may recognise his name from the Oscar Pistorius trial. He’s a digital forensic analyst who pulls data from cellphones, computers and other gadgets. He was called to explain how information was lifted from Carrington Laughton’s cellphone, which was seized after his arrest. The defence had raised suspicions that the phone was tampered with and, once again, that the chain of custody was broken because the device was not handled properly by the police. In essence, Sales testified that Laughton’s phone was locked and they couldn’t access it until October 2012, when the data was finally retrieved. This, he argued, means there was no chance that anyone could have tampered with it beforehand. The defence had a go at the fact that Sales received the phone in an evidence bag that was not properly sealed. But the colonel, who has almost 40 years experience, spent only a few hours in the witness box and, ultimately, there is not that much (comparatively) that turns on the cellphone records.
Once Sales was done, Laughton’s advocate, Laurence Hodes, indicated that they were going for a Section 174 application to try and have at least two charges against him thrown out. The other two accused, David and Carel Ranger, are doing the same, but are challenging all of the counts they face. A Section 174 is an attempt by the defence to convince a court that the state has failed to prove its case and that there is no need to even offer a defence. By way of example, it’s the stage of the trial during which Shrien Dewani was set free.
It should take about a week, or a bit more, to go through this process. If the Section 174s fail, the defence will then open its case. In the absence of any special applications, the first order of business will be Laughton’s testimony (if he decides to take the stand). An accused must testify first, before other witnesses are summoned.
Three years after the confession was found and the arrests were made, I can’t wait to hear the defence’s side of the story. It’s going to get interesting.