Alex Eliseev's

Cold Case Blog


Stress Lands Detective in Hospital – Case Delayed

Update – January 14, 2015

Captain Gerhard van Wyk was discharged from hospital and concluded his evidence in the first week of this year. He spent three days on the stand. In essence, he continued to defend his investigation while facing questions about the evidence he gathered, his methods and credibility (the defense made claims about events dating back more than 20 years). The case has been postponed to mid April.

December 8, 2014

For a while, it seemed like the #ColdCase trial was on track to finishing this year. More than two months were set aside for it to wrap up in what was effectively the third session (there had already been two postponements since the matter began in February). Despite fierce opposition from the defense, the state was working its way through its witnesses, pushing towards putting investigating officer, Gerhard Van Wyk, on the witness stand to pull all the evidence together.

Since the last update, prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas were forced to bring Betty Ketani’s daughters up from the Eastern Cape to testify. There was a dispute from the defense about the whether all of her children had different fathers, an important issue for the DNA leg of the case. Bulelwa and Lusanda Ketani made the journey to Johannesburg.

After them came state forensic pathologist, Professor Gert Saayman, who had also testified in the Oscar Pistorius trial. His role was to give hypothetical evidence about Betty’s murder. The actual killing. Remember, the state argues she was stabbed with a steel knitting needle-like object (as per Conway Brown’s evidence). So Saayman testified about the human skull and what kind of damage such a weapon could do. He also took the court through how a body decomposes and whether Paul Toft-Nielsen’s evidence could be true (what was found in the shallow grave, how the skeleton was thrown away in a river, etc). The professor was a formidable witness, much like professor Thomas Parsons from the Bosnia laboratory. However, despite his knowledge and experience, his evidence is speculative because no post mortem was ever possible in this case. The body – save for a few feet bones – has never been found.

Next, the court heard a lot of medical evidence relating to Carrington Laughton’s first wife, who is mentioned in the hidden confession. For prosecutors, it was important to add this piece of the puzzle because the letter specifically mentions her suicide attempt in 1999 and the date it happened. The medical records, therefore, corroborate the confession and are another bit of circumstantial evidence. As always, there was a great deal of legal fighting over which documents were admissible and which were not. This drained entire days.


Midway through November, Captain Gerhard Van Wyk eventually took to the witness stand as the state’s last witness. He’s a crucial witness because as the investigating officer he was involved in every aspect of the case. He carried the docket, took statements and compiled all the evidence. It was always expected that he would spend a week or two in the hot seat. But, almost from the very beginning, it became clear that Van Wyk was not well. He complained of headaches and struggled to read exhibits. He was booked off for several days and eventually landed up in hospital. It was feared his stress had morphed into diabetes. In a case full of twists, the investigating officer being hospitalised for an “acute stress reaction”, and being booked off for a month, was low on the expectation radar.

Van Wyk had managed five days before the trial ground to a halt yet again. The defense complained and promised to launch a new bail application, given the lengthy postponement. The trial judge was asked to hear it but, after considering submissions from both sides, declined, saying a bail application would force him to make credibility findings, which would complicate things later down the road.

So as things stand, the trial will resume on January 5, 2015. But only for a week. This will hopefully be enough time for the state to close its case (once Van Wyk is cross-examined) and for the defense to launch their Section 174 application (which they will more than likely do). Then, the trial looks set to be postponed once more, this time to April. Why? Because the judge is away on leave and lawyers like Laurence Hodes are not available earlier, having pushed all their cases forward.

With four more months in custody, it’s hardly surprising that Laughton and the Ranger brothers (Carel and David) are talking about a new bail application. They will also argue that the state’s case is done, so they can’t interfere with it. Should a new bail battle break out, it will be fascinating to watch. Laughton and his co-accused have already been denied bail, appealed and lost and then tried again (on new grounds) but failed. A new attempt at this stage would, amongst other things, explore the strength of the state’s case.

The Section 174 application will be even more interesting. This is an application which asks the court whether the state’s case is strong enough for the defense to even open its case. Glenn Agliotti got off a murder charge on a Section 174. As did Shrien Dewani earlier today. In the Dewani case, the state’s case crumbled and the judge found that the only way the accused would ever be found guilty is if he incriminated himself while testifying. Judge Jeanette Traverso said that while she sympathized with Anni’s family, courts can’t allow emotions inside, or face the possibility of anarchy. She spoke of the evidence given by the state’s “accomplice” witnesses as a “garbled mess”, which is about as bad as it can get for a public prosecutor.

I would bet that the Dewani trial (along with others) features in Laurence Hodes’ Section 174 application, should it be made. And it surely will, even if the defense asks for some – not all – of the charges to be withdrawn. In the Ketani case, there are three 105A accomplice witnesses (Conway Brown, Paul Toft Nielsen and Dirk Reinecke) and a 204 witness (Andre Coetzer). All of these witnesses have serious credibility problems and have lied in the past. But the Ketani case is also different because there is handwriting evidence and forensic DNA evidence, which has been led by the state. In other words, the entire case does not rest on the evidence of the accomplices. So as I’ve said before, I would be surprised if a Section 174 succeeds in this case, but I will be watching it with interest.

To wrap up: There have now been 58 court days and 35 state witnesses. Which is an astonishingly long trial, considering the defense is yet to open its case.  Hopefully, this is the last major delay.

Until next month.

A Retired Cop, A Nurse and “Amazing” DNA Results…

November 2, 2014

The #ColdCase trial is finally picking up some speed and there’s a feeling the state is approaching the end of its case.

In coming weeks, we expect to hear from Betty Ketani’s daughters, renowned forensic pathologist, professor Gert Saayman (who testified in the Oscar Pistorius case) and lead detective Gerhard Van Wyk, who will spend days in the witness box. There may be a final surprise or two, but we’ll only know once we get there.

With the defence disputing absolutely everything, prosecutors are calling Betty’s daughters to testify about their parents. This is important for the DNA results, which came from Bosnia and were made extra difficult by the fact that all three children have different fathers (A person gets half their DNA from their father and half from their mother).

Professor Saayman will, more than likely, offer his opinion on how Betty was killed. Remember, there is no body so he will probably have to give hypothetical evidence about a person being stabbed in the head with a knitting needle-like spike (as per the evidence heard in this trial). As for investigating officer Gerhard Van Wyk, he will have to tie up all the loose ends and introduce any evidence which is yet to be presented to court. He’s a crucial state witness.

After that, there’s a chance the defence will bring an application to have the case thrown out (Section 174, in terms of the Criminal Procedure Act). This kind of application argues that the state has failed to make out a case. If this happens, it will be fiercely contested and I can’t see the court being easily persuaded. If the defence wins at that stage, the accused go free. If not, they open their case.

Since the last post, we’ve heard from Betty’s brother, Eric, who testified about the family structure. Then came police forensic expert Greg De Wet, who told the court about how the local laboratory was unable to extract any DNA from the bones that were found in the shallow grave. The bones were too old and degraded and he said it was “amazing” that the lab in Bosnia managed to get a trace of DNA from the samples that were sent there (Police say the six bones were split in half, with three staying in SA and three being shipped overseas). Advocate Laurence Hodes made it known they were going to attack the results of those tests (ICMP, in Bosnia), down to whether the chemicals that were used had expired. It’s going to be an interesting battle, given that the ICMP is an accredited, globally recognized laboratory with its experts testifying in war crimes tribunals at The Hague. I’m looking forward to how this plays out.

The court also heard from Ndaba Bhebe, who, like Themba Tshabalala, was one of the victims mentioned in the confession letter. He was abducted and tortured in 1999, opening a case at the time. These abductions are linked to the investigation at Cranks and, therefore, to the Ketani murder. Bhebe didn’t spend long on the stand and the only unusual twist was when the defence asked the court to inspect his eyes. This caused a moment of confusion, but it quickly emerged that the argument (which failed) was that his eyes are normally bloodshot and that the medical forms from 1999 may have been misleading about his injuries.

Rachel Dube has also testified. She worked with Betty at Cranks and was the last person to see her alive. She also gave an insight in the CCMA war that had erupted back in the day.

Finally, the court heard from a nurse who worked near the scene where Betty was allegedly stabbed (on the side of the R59 highway). This is a fascinating bit of circumstantial evidence introduced by the state. The idea is: Betty was last seen on May 20, 1999. On that same night, a police log book reflects this nurse calling in about a person being brought in with an injury and being driven to the Kopanong hospital. The nurse, Monafu Mphuting, worked at a small maternity clinic that did not have the ability to treat serious injuries. While Mphuting has no independent recollection of the events, she testified that she would not have called the police if she did not suspect a crime. On it’s own, it’s a long stretch. But prosecutors will hope it fits into the bigger picture. According to the confession, Kopanong Hospital is the place from which Betty was kidnapped by men pretending to be a medical transfer crew.

The trial continues.

Third Chapter of the Trial Resumes

October 24, 2014

The #ColdCase trial has resumed and has been underway for around three weeks. We are now 40 court days (and 25 witnesses) in, with the state yet to close its case. The trial is moving extremely slowly, with lengthy cross-examination of every witness.

The latest chapter of the trial began on October 6, 2014 with yet another twist. Prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas called their first Section 204 witness: Andre Coetzer. South Africans were introduced to Section 204 witnesses in the Brett Kebble murder trial, where three hitmen were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. This trial already has three Section 105A witnesses, who also bargained with the state but were convicted and sentenced instead of escaping prosecution all together (as is the case with 204 witnesses).

Coetzer was a police reservist who has admitted to lying about a string of notorious raids in Hillbrow in 1999. These raids were linked to Cranks, where Betty Ketani worked. Coetzer is important to the state because he confirms parts of the secret confession and implicates the accused. He is an old friend of the alleged author of the confession, Carrington Laughton, and painted a picture of policemen who were moonlighting and carrying out illegal raids. Coetzer’s credibility came under fire during cross-examination, given that he had made false statements before. Defence advocate Laurence Hodes accused him of delivering a “pack of lies”. He also produced a Facebook chat that Coetzer’s wife had to try and point of discrepancies in this evidence. In essence, Hodes argued that Coetzer was “directed” by the police and will say anything to save himself (which is a similar line of attack used against earlier witnesses).

Next up was much awaited witness, Dirk Reinecke, who spent five days in the witness box. Reinecke is the third of the 105A witnesses (along with Conway Brown and Paul Toft Nielsen). He testified about how Ketani was kidnapped and interrogated in a hotel room shortly before she disappeared. He is also a crucial link in the chain – and is the man who claims to have handed Conway a duffel bag containing Laughton’s confession. This is important because the letter was found under a carpet at Conway’s house, many years later. Reinecke’s testimony included his friendship with Laughton and the others, their experience with Naked Motoring and other aspects of the case. He faced fierce cross-examination, with his credibility on the line. Hodes also revealed a claim by his client that Reinecke knew about a conspiracy to implicate Laughton in a crime by creating a fake letter – which Dirk denied categorically. As before, it’s now up to the court to decide whether it will accept Reinecke’s evidence, parts of it or none of it. Only time will tell.

The defence then brought an application claiming that the trial was unfair because prosecutors were not playing open cards and their witnesses were testifying about things which were not mentioned in their statements. In essence: “Trial by ambush”. The state fought back and won, with the court dismissing the application. It may not have been a wasted effort, however, because it’s now on record and should there be an appeal, it will certainly be raised.

The next man to step into the witness box was Themba Tshabalala, the victim of those Hillbrow raids in 1999. Tshabalala was kidnapped from his flat and later from the restaurant where he worked, tortured and grilled about those who worked at Cranks (including his wife). He opened a case back then, but has been waiting for justice for 15 years. While giving his evidence in chief, he also produced a diary / notebook which he claimed he kept all those years ago. It was quite an astonishing turn of events, given that this is the first we heard about this diary. Tshabalala told the court he found the book after his first day of testifying, but Hodes set out to prove that he had written in new entries to make them look like historic ones. Basically, Hodes accused him of fabricating evidence, which the witness denied. There was a lot of cross-examination about discrepancies in statements, the ID parade which Themba attended in 2012 and the controversial diary. In turn, Themba complained to the court about being harassed and about people taking down his car registration plate outside court.

Tshabalala’s story needs to be interrogated as does his “ability to observe and recall” (as Hodes phrased it). The diary which surfaced leaves a lot of questions (including Hodes’ argument that it could not have been in existence in 1999, given its copyright notice).  But I couldn’t help feel sorry for him, sitting for days on end in the court, being made to feel like the accused, accepting scraps of lunch from those in the public gallery. There is little doubt of what happened to this man and how traumatic it was. What’s in dispute is who kidnapped and tortured him, and why? I am not for one moment suggesting that victims of crime should not have to go through the process of testifying and being cross-examined – that’s the law – but Tshabalala was really hauled over the legal coals. The defense feel they have done major damage to the state’s case by breaking this witness while the prosecutors believe despite mistakes, Tshabalala has corroborate key aspects of the case.

The witness who is now on the stand is Ketani’s brother Eric. He is in court to explain the family structure, relating to the DNA samples that were taken from Betty’s three children. The defence is disputing everything, including the DNA results, which were confirmed at a lab in Bosnia.

The trial was originally set to run until mid-November, but the judge has already asked all parties to be available until end of term, which is in mid-December. So hang on tight… there’s a long way to go

[VIDEO] Carte Blanche picks up Betty Ketani story

June 18, 2014

Carte Blanche has done an excellent job to bring viewers up to speed on the trial. This video is a must see.

To watch, click here.

The trial has now been postponed to early October to give both sides more time. We expect the state to start wrapping up when the case resumes (unless there are dramatic developments during the break). So far, 21 witnesses have been called by the state, dealing largely with the DNA and handwriting evidence as well as the crucial chain of evidence. Two of the three 105A witnesses (former accused who struck deals in exchange for lenient sentences) have been called. It’s not clear whether prosecutors will summon Dirk Reinecke. [See “Court Case” page] The defense has indicated they plan to call three or four witnesses for each of the accused. The one to watch there is, without a doubt, Carrington Laughton. If he testifies, expect him to spend a good couple of days in the witness box. Also, I would bet on the defense bringing an application to have the case thrown out once the state closes its case (a pretty routine event where lawyers argue the prosecutors have failed to make out a case).

From my side: I will be writing the book over the next few months so if you have any information to share, now is the time. If you are part of the story (living in South Africa or, say, in Australia, New Zealand or Thailand) and would like to give your side, I urge you to get in touch urgently. Time is running out.

Police handwriting expert denies being a “hired gun”

May 15, 2014

The Betty Ketani murder trial has resumed and is set to run for five weeks. The case began on Monday (after a two month pause) with the cross-examination of the state’s handwriting expert, Marco van der Hammen.

Van der Hammen is an impressive witness. He has 22 years experience in his field, has handled nearly 4 000 cases and has testified in court more than 200 times. Outside of the witness box, he is a polite, friendly man who clearly has a deep love for his work. You may have come across his name in the Dina Rodrigues case or the murder trial of Thandi Maqubela, the wife of slain acting judge Patrick Maqubela. Van der Hammen gave evidence in both those trials.

The Colonel was the second police analyst to study the confession letter and compare it to various samples gathered by investigators or provided by Conway Brown (who has pleaded guilty and is now a state witness). Like with DNA analysis, Van der Hammen examined what he had to work with, constructed hypotheses and tested them to reach his findings. Basically, he found that Carrington Laughton was in all probability the man who signed the confession and who wrote several lines at the bottom of its third and last page.

This handwriting match – along with the DNA evidence – is crucial to both the state and the defense, and so it was not surprising to see Van der Hammen spend three days under cross-examination by Laughton’s advocate Laurence Hodes.

It’s fascinating to see how signatures get broken down into various unique parts (in this case: 14 points) and then compared. Or how Van der Hammen pulls out unique letters and patterns while analysing the “rhythm and form” of the written words. He spots how one letter links to another, for example, and then searches for traces of this repetition in other samples. Hodes used the term “wonderful science” sarcastically, but I’m happy to dry it off from that sarcasm and use it seriously. Regardless of whether the court accepts the evidence or not, it’s been intriguing learning more about it.

Like before, Hodes and his team did their homework. They had a mountain of reference material, had consulted their own expert (who is likely to testify later) and had their own analysis. The veteran advocate challenged the veteran cop on pretty much every front, working his way to a dramatic finish during which he accused Van der Hammen of being a “hired gun” for the state. Van der Hammen smiled ever so slightly as the accusation was fired and replied: “My Lord, I’ve been called many names before… I’ve been called a hired gun before as well… I’m here not as an advocate, I’m here as a professional in a certain field.”

Hodes accused the officer of excluding certain evidence, of excusing away discrepancies or differences which he could not explain and questioned the reliability of handwriting analysis. He locked horns with Van der Hammen on issues like whether the confession was typed on a laser or ink-jet printer, whether the third page may have been inserted later and why the document was not sent overseas for complex chemical tests to determine its age (given that bones from a shallow grave – believed to belong to Ketani – were sent to Bosnia when the local laboratories failed to extract DNA from them).

But Hodes saved the fireworks for prosecutor Namika Kowlas, who handled the re-examination. He launched a dramatic series of objections, accusing her of being underhanded and dishonest, of leading the witness and of slipping him information to guide his answers. He also accused her of asking questions which don’t belong in a re-examination. Hodes fumed, saying he would not sit by and watch the questions unfold. He stopped only once the judge asked him to, assuring him that his concerns had been heard. Kowlas, quite cunningly, didn’t fight back, but rephrased the questions or moved on, abandoning them. She had made her points, which were that Van der Hammen has a wealth of experience with no court (as far as he knows) ever dismissing his evidence and that Laughton had (despite what the defense claimed) been asked for samples of his handwriting but had refused to cooperate.

The defense steered the questions to support Laughton’s version, which is that the confession is a forgery and that he neither wrote it nor signed it. He’s likely to heap the blame on Conway Brown, who hid the letter under the carpet and later forgot all about it. Brown will be the next witness and is quite possibly the most crucial one for the prosecutors. Remember, he places himself at the scene of the murder, claiming that he held Ketani while Laughton stabbed her with a “silver metal shaft, similar to a knitting needle”. Brown also admits to burying the body in a shallow grave and later digging it up. How he performs on the witness stand will largely determine how the rest of the trial is handled by both sides.

As for Van der Hammen and the handwriting evidence… the court will not lightly disregard his findings. They were presented in an expert manner by a man who is clearly an expert. What will be interesting to see is whether Laughton’s own, private handwriting analyst will be able to do enough to tip the scales and to cast enough doubt on Van der Hammen’s report. The study of handwriting is not like fingerprint or DNA analysis. It is more subjective. Less reliable. More open to interpretation. So for everything that Van der Hammen has concluded, a different expert may be able to show the complete opposite. The court will then be left to decide which analysis is more reliable.

Either way, in a case which is almost entirely built on circumstantial evidence, the handwriting plays an important role as one of the pieces of the puzzle.

The Final Battle Approaches

March 8, 2014

The pause button has been pushed and the trial will continue in May. The reason for this is that three weeks turned out to be not nearly enough time to get through the evidence required. The state is still busy with its case and the break comes in the middle of the handwriting testimony. This is a crucial aspect of the case if prosecutors are going to link Carrington Laughton to the confession found under the carpet. He, of course, denies having anything to do with it.

In case you missed the last two days, we heard from a handwriting expert who confirmed that the signature on the confession and the few lines of writing at the bottom appear to be the work of Laughton. He is likely to bring his own expert or experts to dispute this. On its own, even if there’s a match, it’s not likely it would lead to a conviction. But prosecutors are hoping that this will be yet another piece of circumstantial evidence which will eventually tip the scales. Whoever wins this round, will secure a major victory. When the trial resumes on the 12th of May 2014, the defense will cross-examine the handwriting expert. Expect this to take some time.

We’ve also now had arguments in the battle over the chain of evidence. Simply put, the defense claims it’s broken and therefore the case against Laughton and the Ranger brothers, Carel and David, is dead in the water. The state argues that the chain is in tact. At the heart of the dispute is whether prosecutor Herman Broodryk can introduce new evidence during the re-examining of a witness given that advocate Laurence Hodes raised a new issue while cross-examining that same witness. It all has to do with the way a couple of evidence bags were handled. Judgment in this regard is expected on 3 April 2014. Again, this is a crucial part of the case.

What you can look forward to in May: Prosecutors will call the three “105” witnesses. These are the men who once sat in the dock with Laughton and the Rangers, but took deals and are now testifying for the state. Conway Brown will be the most important witness, followed by Paul Toft-Nielson and Dirk Reinecke. Expect fireworks. Hodes is going to try and tear them to pieces, attacking their credibility. If there is ever going to be a time when dirty secrets spill out, this will be it.

We’ll also have more forensic and chain evidence before the state closes its case. Hodes will almost certainly try and have the case thrown out after that, arguing that the state has failed to prove its allegations. If that fails, the defense will then begin to present its case with the biggest question being: will Carrington testify?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In two months time, all will be revealed.

To follow the trial live, get on Twitter: @alexeliseev

What will the DNA reveal?

February 26, 2014

Trial resumes today after a short break. To catch up, click on the following link:

Next up, if all goes according to plan, are the international DNA experts from Bosnia and America.

Follow the trial at @alexeliseev or @ewnreporter

“I know my Bones”…

February 22, 2014

It’s astonishing how quickly the advantage can swing from prosecutors to the defence teams, or visa versa, in the space of just a few hours. The fourth day of the Betty Ketani murder trial was a perfect example.

The morning began with prosecutors calling Claudio Bisso, a forensic anthropologist and archeologist, specialising in osteology. Let me make it simple: a bones expert. Bisso qualified in Argentina and speaks in a thick accent, in a rather playful manner for a scientist. Her credentials are impeccable: more than twenty years experience and field work in just about every genocide or civil war hell hole on earth: Chad, Sierra Leon, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Congo, etc. Lately, she’s been assisting a special unit in the National Prosecuting Authority, which searches for and exhumes victims of apartheid regime, bringing closure to their families. Imagine the stories she tells…

Bisso testified that she was called out to what’s believed to be Ketani’s shallow grave at a house in Kenilworth, JHB. She was shown three small bones which had been found and immediately identified them as human. Over the course of the afternoon, she witnessed three more being brought up from the soil and remaining behind in a large sieve which was constructed near the opening. Her evidence was important to the state because she’s an objective expert who saw the bones being discovered.

Half way through her evidence I tweeted: “Opinion: I doubt (defence advocate Laurence) Hodes will challenge Bisso’s knowledge of bones. Rather the sanctity of the grave / scene”. Within minutes, he opened his cross-examination with: “I take no issue with your qualifications” and described her as an honest witness. His line of attack was that the crime scene had been excavated before and was contaminated. While Bisso maintained the way the police handled the excavation was “perfect” (she said the South African police service seldom gets it right), Hodes questioned the record keeping which took place and whether exhibits were properly sealed and handled.

At one point, Bisso was asked how she knew that the bones which were found on 10 July 2012 were human, she replied: “I know my bones”. This, along with “I’m a chef, not a policeman” are so far my quotes of the trial. Bisso also testified that when a body is removed from a grave, the hands and feet bones are the ones that are always missed. They are small and there are many of them, making it easy for some to snap off and fall back into the grave, or to be overlooked all together. “They always forget the hands and feet,” she said.

Bisso was a perfect witness and walked out of the courtroom without a scratch. The defence put it to her that anyone could have dropped anything in the grave during a previous excavation, but that was a question for the police, not for her.

Next up was Captain Teunis Briers, from the police’s forensic laboratory in Pretoria. His unit has a solid reputation and facilitated three of the six bones to be flown to Bosnia for DNA testing. The idea was to compare the DNA to samples drawn from Betty’s children. South African labs weren’t able to extract the DNA because of how small, old and brittle the bones were. It was a difficult sample to work with and it required the world leaders in DNA: the International Commission on Missing Persons.

Long story short, Briers withered under cross examination. He was already on the back foot having had to sign a second affidavit to correct typos on his initial statement about the bones. He is a crucial witness because he dug the grave and found the bones. He sealed them and kept them safe. He handled them before they went to Bosnia. He is paramount to the chain of evidence.

He was hammered about the date of the excavation because someone in the police managed to stuff up the dates. He was grilled about how the excavation was done and why no photographs were taken of the second batch of three bones found later in the afternoon. He came under fire for pretty much every aspect of the exhumation. That was to be expected. Hodes has a job to do and he is very, very good at it. Eventually, he broke through Briers’ armour by finding what he called a break in the chain of evidence. In a nutshell, the DNA samples from Betty’s kids in the Eastern Cape were repackaged before being sent to Bosnia (for a harmless reason of removing a police form which had been sealed inside the same evidence bag). The repackaging meant new reference numbers on the sample bags, which Briers failed to explain in his statement. Hodes pounced: “In a drunk driving case, if the seals don’t tie up, the chain is broken and the accused goes free”.

The day ended early because prosecutor Herman Broodryk wanted to fix the problem by submitting a new piece of evidence. Hodes objected and refused to let it in. The two sides deadlocked on the law around this, given that the issue only arose during cross-examination. The judge asked both sides to prepare legal arguments (with case law) to be heard later on.

So these are anxious days for the prosecutors. And they have their international DNA experts arriving on Monday. These are the scientists who extracted the DNA and ran the comparisons. They are coming from Bosnia and from America.

The trial resumes on Wednesday to allow prosecutors time to consult their new witnesses. Because they have to fly back, their evidence will be heard before the dispute over the DNA sample bags is settled.

Follow the trial at: @alexeliseev and @ewnreporter  

Ghosts of the Past Break Free…

February 20, 2014

Over the past two days of trial we’ve travelled back in time, hearing from the supermarket chef whose family discovered the hidden confession and from Carrington Laughton’s ex-wife Jayne. It’s always interesting, and haunting, to watch the ghosts of the past break free. So much testimony has been given it’s difficult to find the right place to begin…

Werner Nortje and his family discovered the bundle of letters (including the confession) on the last day of March 2012. Prosecutor Herman Broodryk SC summoned Werner for several reasons, the most important being for him to identify that the confession before court – those three typed and signed pages – are the same ones which were pulled up from under the carpet. Werner did just that. A dark brown moisture stain on the outside page (which had been folded in half) almost certainly helped the state’s case.

Werner, like everyone else, came in for a grilling from Laughton’s advocate Laurence Hodes SC, and was questioned about why some details had been left out of his affidavits. Hodes accused him of making statements which were “peppered with inaccuracies”. Werner cracked once, raising his voice and telling the judge that he was being asked the same question over and over again, but aside from that, he stood firm. His standard line turned out to be: I’m a chef, not a policeman. Werner was also forced to explain why he handed over the letters to private investigators and not the cops. His explanation was that he believed they were the police and, in any case, they were working with Yeoville detectives. He added that he didn’t go directly to the police because he doesn’t trust the SAPS. It’s too early to say how this aspect of the case will play out, but the defense will surely argue that the chain of evidence was broken.

Werner’s testimony also touched on the excavations done at his house, with the defense teams again suggesting that the ‘crime scene’ (or the shallow grave) was not secure and may have been tampered with. Overall, I’d be surprised if the judge makes a negative credibility finding against Werner. He came across as objective and as someone who has no motive to deceive the court. His objectivity, in my opinion, served as a shield against Hodes’ ‘inaccuracy’ arrows.

Jayne Laughton began testifying on the third day. She was nervous at first and was told on several occasions to speak louder. Everything about her body language screamed that she really didn’t want to be in that courtroom. Having covered the Jackie Selebi trial, I was particularly interested to hear her evidence. In the Selebi matter, it was Glenn Agliotti’s ex-fiancée, Dianne Muller, that inflicted a lethal wound to the police commissioner’s defense, describing how an envelope full of cash was slipped across the table. Jayne had been married to Carrington for five years and is the mother of one of his children. She has a lot of information about him, from his collection of army uniforms (and a doctor’s coat) to his “big gun” called Luigi.

Jayne was also the “mystery witness” who came forward to give the police a bunch of photographs which Carrington had asked her to keep safe in 2001. When she heard he was arrested for murder 11 years later, she went to her parents’ safe and retrieved his envelope. The photographs were an insurance policy against Cranks owner Eric Neeteson-Lemkes. Carrington’s case is (in essence) that he’s being framed by Eric, who has in the past bribed cops to have him arrested on at least two occasions. Carrington had investigated a string of thefts at the restaurant in 1999. The photographs are an important bit of circumstantial evidence as they are mentioned in the confession. The story goes that they were doctored to show a murder – allegedly ordered by Eric – which never took place.

Jayne also identified Carrington’s handwriting and signature, which is important to the state’s case. Carrington refused to give a handwriting sample but the police went to the prison where he was being kept and seized letters which he had written to the authorities. In yet another twist, Jayne testified that the signature he used on the prison letters was completely new and she had never seen it before. She also identified his signature on his passport, a slip for a television they once bought and their divorce papers. The confession itself is typed, but it is signed and contains a few lines of handwritten text at the end, which Jayne believes was made by Carrington’s hand.

Hodes didn’t waste any time in showing that Jayne is not a qualified handwriting expert and can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her assessments are correct. Remember, in a criminal trial, unlike in civil disputes, the state has to prove its case beyond any doubt. Hodes kept putting his client’s version forward: Carrington is being framed by “evil” Eric. The third week of trial should see the state’s handwriting analyst go head-to-head with the defense’s own expert. Jayne was there to say: “I knew the man for five years, he wrote a hundred letters to me, and that looks like his handwriting and signature”. She did concede that the signature on the confession looks neater than normal, which Hodes made a big deal out of.

Jayne also testified about Carrington’s circle of friends: Conway Brown (now a state witness), Paul Toft-Nielson (a state witness), Dirk Reynecke (state witness), Sandor, the Ranger brothers and others. She said that Carrington had told her that the photographs were made after Eric asked for a woman (presumably one of his employees) to be killed. She also shared what Carrington said about his ex-girlfriend and Eric’s daughter Monique: “She’s a thief who stole from her father” and who was arrested in Thailand. Monique has denied any wrongdoing.

Jayne was economical with her words and seemed like a solid witness. Both sides will probably claim victory here: the prosecutors will be pleased that she identified the handwriting and signature while the defense will take comfort from forcing her to admit that she is not a handwriting expert. Jayne also didn’t come across as bias to either side, admitting that Carrington was a good father and revealing that she refused to hand over the letters he wrote to their daughter. The key question now is: how much weight will be attached to her evidence.

The next step in the trial is the DNA evidence. The foreign experts fly in next week (fragments of bones were sent to the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia for DNA tests). Why, you ask? Because South Africa didn’t have the equipment and expertise to pull DNA from the tiny, old bones. Considering the state is trying to prove a murder case without a body (which has only been done a handful of times) the DNA evidence is going to be crucial.

Follow the trial at: @alexeliseev or @ewnReporter