The Haunted Mansion Talk

I have spoken about #ColdCaseConfession at some interesting venues, but none as interesting as the one I’m visiting on July 6, 2016. Don’t miss this opportunity to explore the former mansion of one of Johannesburg’s Randlords, a 40-room national monument, now believed to be haunted by the ghost of a flamboyant socialite.

The talk is being organised by the Rand Club, but not at its former home in the Joburg CBD. Instead, it’s taking place at the Northwards mansion in Parktown. The place has such a rich history – stretching back to 1904 – there are tours running through what has been described as a “historic landmark” in the city.

The mansion once belonged to the Dale Laces; John, a wealthy broker and his wife Josephine, who apparently rode around in a cart pulled by zebras, slept till noon, bathed in milk and had affairs with an English king (she was also rumoured to have been proposed to by Cecil John Rodes, who has done a great deal of #falling lately, although not in love). The house is believed to be haunted by Josephine, who died in 1937. Step on a certain part of the staircase and, legend has it, you’ll hear the rustling of her dress. Forget to straighten her portrait in the hall, and she’ll do it for you.

mansion

Over the past century the Northwards mansion has been sold and bought many times, including by the SABC. There were plans to demolish it and erect a television tower in its place. Not entirely unexpectedly, during the nine years the house was under SABC control, paintings and fittings were stolen and one employee even made off with the gate. “Sterling work” as Hlaudi Motsoeneng might say today.

There have been fires and extensive restorations, but the mansion stands and is the venue of my next talk. If you want to read more about the history of Northwards, click here. On the day, I will talk about my book using an audio presentation, so you will hear the voices of the main characters in the story. I will also talk about South Africa and its criminal justice system. There will be time for questions and you can also get a book signed.

books

Details of the talk are as follows:

Date: 6 July, 2016.

Time: 12pm

Venue: 21 Rock Ridge Road, Parktown

Cost: R230 (including lunch and drinks).

RSVP: Roanne@randclub.co.za / 011-870-4260

(Information used in this blog is contained in an article published on the City of Joburg’s website. Link provided above.)

From Joburg to a tiny island in the English Channel

“Unputdownable, riveting, utterly fascinating. My book of the year. By far.”

– Deon Meyer

“This book has become a South African classic.” 

– Jenny Crwys Williams

May and June have flown by. Both months have been jam-packed with book-related events, following the launch of Cold Case Confession. So far, the feedback has been extremely generous and I am humbled by it. I never expected Betty Ketani’s story to travel so far, but I have heard from readers across South Africa and beyond. For example, I received this photograph from Norwin Lederer, a South African who read #ColdCaseConfession while working on a tiny island off the coast of Normandy, France. There is now a copy of the book at Hotel de France in Jersey.

Hotel

(Click image to enlarge)

Norwin and I corresponded briefly and I am inspired by his story. His son, who recently turned eight, is fighting an extremely rare congenital condition called AVM and has undergone 27 surgeries since birth. You can read more about it here. Thank you Norwin for the kind words you penned in the book and for taking the time to tell me about your life.

I received an email from a reader in Namibia, curious about the motive in the Ketani case and also a phone call from my primary school principal (now retired), who phoned the EWN newsroom to find me. On social media, I’ve received feedback from readers in London and other European countries. One reader pointed out some details about World War II, which is mentioned in passing in the chapters on the DNA tests, which were conducted in Bosnia. I have had a friendly argument with a judge who was facilitating a talk I was doing in Franschhoek and a rather personal discussion about my family’s past with Deon Meyer, who interviewed me at Kingsmead Book Fair. I have done talks everywhere from a grand synagogue to a classroom full of cadets trying to break into the world of journalism.

Cold Case Confession remains on some of the best seller lists across the country and was picked by Exclusive Books for its Homebru list of 2016.

Cover

It’s still early days in terms of reviews, but here are a few links you may find interesting:

Daily Maverick: ‘Cold Case’ Alex: Finding the Truth Among Angels and Demons:

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2016-05-13-cold-case-alex-finding-the-truth-among-angels-and-demons/#.V2QQGuZ95Xg

Business Day: Her killers are in prison, but ‘questions remain’ about Betty Ketani’s death:

http://www.bdlive.co.za/life/books/2016/05/09/her-killers-are-in-prison-but-questions-remain-about-betty-ketanis-death

Carte Blanche: Bringing Betty Home:

http://carteblanche.dstv.com/betty-ketani-home/

Charts

And here are some emails / Amazon reviews:

 

“I have just finished reading “Cold Case Confession”. Being an avid reader all my life, I have in the last couple of years struggled to focus on reading anything much, largely due to work-related time constraints and demands. Your book has had me in its grip for the last 4 days (which is how long it took me to read it!) and I am lost for words – something which those who know me would fine hard to believe! Not only was I stunned at the way in which the events played out, but am full of admiration for the way in which you described and relayed those events and the people involved in them. I have been left with so many mixed emotions; triumph that a conviction was achieved, sadness that Betty’s family will never be able to bring her body home – yet grateful they are at least able to find some closure after all these years, restoration of some faith in our justice system (ja ok, not a complete restoration of faith!) and heck, at the end of it all I even found myself feeling a little bit sorry for Conway Brown. You brought the human element into the narrative, without becoming sentimental or allowing your own opinions of personalities to overshadow it. Congratulations. I always admired you as a journalist, but you have shown us your true talent, and I wish you nothing but the best.” – Amanda

“Cold Case is one of the most riveting books that I have read. It is very well written and easy to read. The book took me a week to read in my spare time. The only books that I have read so quickly are Power of One and Its not about The Bike. Looking forward to reading your next book.” – Mark

“Congratulations for an excellent book that reveals so much more than meets the eye!” – Anita

“What a book. Once started I could not stop reading. Fascinating and one of the best books I ever read. Thanks Alex. I know how much it takes to write a book like this.” – Wilson

“Captivating from the first page. The detail on each character makes you feel you know them personally. Best book I have read in a really long time.” – Amazon Customer

“A compelling and excellent book. I could not put it down. Well presented and well written. It is definitely worth reading!!” – Simone

 

Follow the conversation and keep up to speed on my latest events on Twitter: @alexeliseev / #ColdCaseConfession 

A “Cold and Lonely Death”

The Betty Ketani trial is over. Four years after they were arrested (and a marathon 2-year trial later) Carrington Laughton and brothers Carel and David Ranger have been convicted and sentenced for murdering Ketani in May 1999. Ketani’s brother, Mankinki, was in court for the sentencing and as he walked out he quoted none other than Nelson Mandela: “It’s been a long walk to freedom”.

By freedom, the family means closure. With sentencing done, the family can move forward. Betty’s daughter Bulelwa can start looking for work again, knowing it won’t be disrupted by subpoenas to testify in Johannesburg. Ketani’s youngest daughter, Lusanda can focus on her school work again and on raising her young son. Mankinki can get back to running his little shop in Barkly East.

In the coming days, the family will return to Joburg to fetch Betty Ketani’s spirit and to escort it back home. In Queenstown, across the road from their house, Betty’s children will bury her, seventeen years after she first disappeared. When they need guidance or just someone to talk to, they will be able to visit her grave. It’s too late for this year’s Mother’s Day, but next year they will have a grave to gather at. A painful chapter in their lives has ended.

In court, for the first time, Judge Natvarial Ranchod gave his impressions of the crimes that had been committed and the manner in which Ketani was murdered. You can listen to it here:

Carrington Laughton has been sentenced to an effective 30 years behind bars. The Ranger brothers, who have already spent four years in jail, will have to spend another four each. They were convicted of culpable homicide and got away with lighter sentences.

It’s important to also remember that three other accused, Conway Brown, Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reinecke pleaded guilty and received more lenient sentences.

Laughton and the Rangers applied for leave to appeal their convictions (and, in Laughton’s case, his sentence) but were refused it by Judge Ranchod. They will now have to petition the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein.

Prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas, along with investigating officer Captain Gerhard Van Wyk, will now busy themselves with extradition applications for outstanding suspects who they believe should face justice.

Although the trial has ended, there are still missing pieces in the #ColdCase puzzle. And if a 3-page confession to a murder can be discovered lying under a carpet 12 years after the crime, then who knows what the future holds.

Why I refused to let the betty ketani story go

One day, I arrived at work to find a piece of paper stuck over my computer screen. It was a blank sheet with three words scribbled in the centre: #JusticeForBetty. Someone in the newsroom was poking fun at me. Again. I made no inquiries as to who the culprit was, nor did I extend any energy or investigative skills to track the person down. It could have been anyone. I had annoyed enough people – particularly editors – with my relentless coverage of the Betty Ketani story.

It had become something of an in-joke at the office. Some people started calling me: “Cold Case” and one colleague, who I won’t expose, had a habit of pretending to shiver when we greeted each other. It was pretty funny and I took no offence. I couldn’t deny it, the trial I had committed to cover in full was taking a very, very long time to wrap up.

I broke the #ColdCase story in early 2012, shortly after the first arrests were made. It was – and remains – the most intriguing and unusual crime I have ever encountered as a journalist.

A hidden confession is found by pure chance under a carpet and leads to the solving of a then 12-year-old murder mystery in which a mother-of-three simply disappeared. For all those years her family lived in agony, while her killers held onto their dark secret. Within weeks of the discovery, six men are behind bars, two of them brothers, one a former policeman the other still in uniform.

The confession opens with the words, “If you are reading this then I am dead” and reveals how Betty Ketani was kidnapped, stabbed in the head on the side of a dark road, left for dead, rescued and taken to hospital… only to be snatched again and abandoned in an old bus parked on a remote farm. It was inside that bus (which was used as an outside room) that she died on that winter’s night in 1999.

The man who, it turned out, had written the letter, Carrington Laughton, was the first accused. Four years later, two of which were consumed by a fierce legal battle during which Laughton tried every possible tactic to break the state’s case, a court found him guilty of murdering Ketani.
By then, almost 17 years had passed since her abduction. The brothers, Carel and David Ranger, were convicted of culpable homicide.

The Betty Ketani trial ran, on and off, from 2014 to 2016. It sailed firmly under the shadows of the Oscar Pistorius and Shrien Dewani trials, which sucked up all available media oxygen. The defence disputed everything and the state was forced to call dozens of witnesses, some merely to explain how they handled an evidence bag. A doctor was called all the way from the Eastern Cape to prove that he took DNA swabs from Ketani’s children.

There were endless applications for the case to be declared unfair, clashes in diaries that led to months of delays and cross-examination that lasted for days (Laughton spent 13 days on the witness stand). It was a long, difficult trial.

What made it unique was that Ketani’s body was never found; only six tiny bones were retrieved from a shallow grave. There are only a handful of such murder cases in South Africa’s legal history. DNA tests were carried out in a laboratory in Bosnia, with experts flying in to testify, while the handwriting analysis was complex because the majority of the confession under the carpet had been typed. It was a case built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence, with three of the accused eventually turning state witness.

For lead prosecutor Herman Broodryk SC it was the most difficult case in a 34-year career. His opponent was a brilliant lawyer and fellow silk, Laurence Hodes SC, who had his own team assembled.

In the end, the case that emerged was so complicated, with such strong arguments, that Judge Natvarial Ranchod took four months to prepare judgment. The trial took around 100 court days.
For Broodryk, his partner, Advocate Namika Kowlas, and investigating officer Captain Gerhard Van Wyk it was an anxious wait. The matter had consumed them and saw them investigating until the very end, having to reopen the state’s case to call two new witnesses. The defence had ambushed them with a last-minute alibi. Kowlas had spent two Decembers drafting reply papers to bail applications that were later abandoned. It had been a long, emotional road, during which Broodryk and Van Wyk had battled with their health.

Then came the judgment.

Two years, to the day, after the trial began, Laughton and the Ranger brothers were found guilty. Betty Ketani was avenged. Her daughter and brother were in the back row of the court’s public gallery to witness the moment. There were tears and hugs in the corridor. Betty’s daughter Bulelwa said the family finally had closure and would now bring her mother’s spirit back home to the Eastern Cape. For the prosecutors it was a clean sweep, with the defence’s DNA evidence being rejected and Laughton’s lengthy evidence being described as “false beyond any reasonable doubt”. Laughton’s claim that he was being framed collapsed.

The NPA and the police are never short of scandals. Every day seems to bring a new debacle. As the Ketani judgment was being delivered, the NPA’s boss, Shaun Abrahams, was in the headlines for two immensely controversial decisions (Breytenbach and Booysen).

But on the ground, prosecutors like Broodryk and Kowlas, and detectives like Van Wyk give everything they have to under-the-radar cases. Quiet quests for justice, which don’t spark international media frenzies. Judgments delivered without cameras or rivers of live Tweets.
Sure, there is corruption and rot within both organisations, but there are also dedicated people who honour their professions, often at great personal cost.

Broodryk says it all comes together as soon as a verdict is handed down.

“Everything is just suddenly worth it. All the hardship, the heartache, the personal suffering, the trouble, everything bad that you can think of that goes into a long case like this,” he says.

“Afterwards, when you walk out of court and you see the daughter of the deceased and the brother of the deceased, of Betty Ketani, and you see them crying, suddenly everything is worth it. Nothing that you could have done could be too much.”

And as for me and the countless reports I fired off about the trial that seemed to drag on for an eternity, well, I was just fortunate enough to be able to tell the story. Covering these kinds of cases is why we get into journalism. To amplify voices and to watch over how the system serves all South Africans, not just the millionaires or the celebrities.

There were difficult moments along the way. But on my office wall at home hung a photograph of Betty Ketani. In that frozen moment she was very much alive, happy, lazily leaning back against an old Chevrolet. When I felt defeated and wanted to give up, I looked at that photograph and thought about her life. I thought about her three children living in her late sister’s house in Queenstown. And I thought about what her murder had done to her family and how desperately they wanted closure.

And as for the #JusticeForBetty piece of paper… I kept it as a souvenir. Perhaps one day the mystery of who stuck it onto my computer screen will also be solved. Stranger things have happened.

(Originally published on Eyewitness News – www.ewn.co.za)

Judgment Day

February 17, 2016

Two years, to the day, after the trial began, Judge Natvarial Ranchod finished delivering his judgment. Carrington Laughton has been convicted of murder, kidnapping and attempted kidnapping. Carel and David Ranger were found guilty of kidnapping and Culpable Homicide. The three are to be sentenced in early May.

A court has now ruled the confession discovered under the carpet is genuine and was written by Laughton. Almost 17 years after Betty Ketani vanished without a trace, her family finally have closure.

Judge Ranchod found the state presented a “formidable case” against Laughton and the Rangers. The DNA tests and handwriting analysis, along with the evidence of the state’s 105A witnesses, all proved crucial. The court rejected Laughton’s testimony (and surprise alibi) as “false beyond reasonable doubt” and described him as a poor, evasive witness. The judge was not impressed with the defence’s DNA expert, who had made up his title, nor by Laughton’s friend Leon Rehrl. He noted that Conway Brown, Paul Toft-Nielson and Dirk Reinecke were hardly “angels”, but their evidence was corroborated.

Moments after the judgment was delivered, there were tears of joy and hugs outside the courtroom. Ketani’s eldest daughter Bulelwa and brother Mankinki had travelled from the Eastern Cape to witness the moment. They thanked prosecutors Herman Broodryk and Namika Kowlas, and detective Gerhard Van Wyk, for all their work. Bulelwa says they will now try and bring her mother’s spirit home.

Judgment Day

For more, see the following links from EWN:

Story 01

Story 02 

A Race Against Time…

With the clock ticking down towards the end of the court term, the trial is moving faster now. Carrington Laughton is virtually done presenting his case and the first of the Ranger brothers has testified. The judge is now reluctant to grant postponements, insisting that each court day be filled, even if it means knocking out the order a little.

After spending the equivalent of two weeks on the witness stand, Laughton called his witnesses. First, there was a DNA expert who challenged the findings of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), a world renowned DNA lab based in Bosnia. David Swanepoel argued that the forensic link established between the bones found in a shallow grave and Betty Ketani’s children is unreliable, especially in a criminal trial where the stakes are so much higher. He had a go at some of the chemicals used by the ICMP and testified that Ketani could still be excluded as the victim. The state questioned Swanepoel’s experience (he’s only been working for about five years) and level of qualifications (still studying towards a masters degree). Simply put, prosecutors argued: Are you really qualified to challenge our expert? The state’s witness who testified on behalf of the ICMP was Dr Thomas Parsons, who has a PHD in molecular biology (specialising in ancient DNA) and whose CV runs to over 20 pages, including the fact that at the time of testifying he led a team of over 80 scientists and had testified at The Hague. The ICMP, by the way, had expressed its own reservation at the results, saying they are not strong enough to be used without supporting evidence.

Laughton’s handwriting expert, Cecil Greenfield, on the other hand, was an absolute veteran with a lifetime of experience behind him. He testified about the reliability of handwriting evidence (to sum up: “treat it with caution, it’s subjective”), but mostly agreed with the findings of the state’s handwriting expert, policeman Marco Van der Hammen. Interestingly, Greenfield said he could find no evidence that the signatures on the confession were forged, except that the third one was slightly different to the first two (there are three pages and three signatures). He raised some questions about other aspects, like whether the third page was written with a different pen or at a different time. For the defense it was important to highlight the “anomalies”, feeding into the alleged conspiracy against Laughton.

One of Carrington’s friends, Leon Rehrl, also took the stand. His evidence supports Laughton’s claim that he is being framed. But I’d be surprised if this plays any major part in the outcome since Rehrl’s story is that (about 10 years ago) he had a conversation with someone, who had heard from someone else that there was an apparent plot to set Carrington up. There is no way to prove this, it wasn’t put to key state witnesses and Rehrl’s credibility is yet to be determined.

David Ranger, meanwhile, has given his evidence. His version aligns with Laughton’s, who claims they did go and pick up a woman at a hospital in Vereeniging, but that it was in 1995 and not in 1999. Laughton, and now David, who is a former policeman, say the woman was not Betty Ketani and was not being kidnapped, but instead was merely being driven to meet one of her family members. The problem for Ranger is that three years ago, he and his brother Carel signed bail affidavits that began with “During 1999…” and then spelt out this hospital trip. The statements were not only signed but read into the record and confirmed by them. David’s explanation now is that he was too stressed and angry to take it all in and should never have signed the statements or confirmed its contents. Prosecutor Herman Broodryk challenged him, saying David was a policeman with 17 years service who knows full well how important bail statements are. Not only that, he was also a trainer who taught others officers. We’ll have to wait and see what the court makes of this.

There are two weeks left before the end of the court term. It’s hoped that within that time both sides can finish presenting evidence, leaving only closing arguments and judgment.

Follow the trial: @alexeliseev / @ewnreporter

Victim or “Puppet Master”?

Carrington Laughton spent 13 days on the witness stand. There was far too much testimony for me to cover everything here, save to say that the fundamental dispute over who wrote the hidden confession remains firmly in place. Laughton didn’t move an inch from his claim that he is being framed for murder and that the confession, which was discovered (by pure chance) under a carpet three years ago, is a forgery.

The former private detective was an impressive witness. Prosecutor Herman Broodryk must have realised that he was not going to get him to surrender or admit to anything. Once, somewhere towards the end, Laughton told the court he felt tired. But when asked whether he was willing to continue, he fell straight back into his rhythm.

Most days were consumed by the details – dates, people, places, routes, documents, memories, sequences of events, a missing comma in the court record… Other days saw tense exchanges between prosecutor and accused. Broodryk searched for discrepancies and lies, finding weak spots and applying as much pressure as he could. He also worked on Laughton’s credibility. What was important to the state was all the questions that Laughton didn’t ask its witnesses or the statements that went unchallenged. This, Broodryk argued, showed that he had waited for the state to finish its case before creating a version, which was tailored to fit the evidence.

“All along, you did not have a version,” Broodryk charged. “You made up a version based on the state’s case. You have no defense…”

But Laughton stuck to his guns, arguing that his legal advice was to wait until he opened his case before presenting his version and alibi. He used words like “nonsensical” or “preposterous” to challenge the state’s case. He pushed back against Broodryk when he needed to, accusing him of asking unfair or vague questions.

And so the court has been left with two versions. One presented by Laughton, which shifts the entire time frame of events and has him in another city when the crime is committed. The other offered by the state, which paints him as the “puppet master” of the Betty Ketani kidnapping and murder in mid 1999. We’ll know which the court believes when judgment is delivered.

From here, the defense is calling its own expert witnesses to dispute the DNA and handwriting findings presented by the state. It will also call one of Laughton’s friends to support the allegation that a conspiracy was hatched against him.

Follow the case: @alexeliseev

Carrington Laughton Reveals his Cards

May 3, 2015

As far as evidence-in-chief goes, Carrington Laughton has proved himself to be an impressive witness. He is clearly familiar with the way a courtroom functions and is comfortable enough to speak directly to the judge or instruct his lawyer from inside the witness box. While testifying, Laughton picks his words carefully, shows off his powerful memory and dismisses the evidence against him as “ridiculous” or “completely untrue”. He never seems to run out of confidence.

The man accused of writing a confession at the heart of the “Cold Case” has spent three days giving his version. He is almost done and will now face cross examination. The next few days will define what kind of witness he will be remembered as. Laughton continues to deny that he wrote the letter and maintains he is being framed.

This is the first time the former private investigator has given a full version. He kept his cards close to his chest right up until his Section 174 application failed to keep him out of the witness box. As expected, Laughton has presented a comprehensive defence, complete with a 1995 diary and an incredible amount of detail – down to the colour of a suitcase he claims to have laid eyes on twenty years ago.

Carrington has presented a dramatically different timeline of key events in his life, which challenges the state’s case against him. He claims that at the time when Betty Ketani was kidnapped and killed (May 1999), he was spending his weeks in Cape Town on business. He has also tried to explain why his two co-accused, Carel and David Ranger, confessed (during their bail application) to pushing Betty Ketani out of a Vereeniging hospital in 1999. [You’ll recall that the state’s version is that Laughton and Conway Brown tried to kill Ketani on the side of a road but failed, which led to her being snatched from hospital and left to die in an old hollowed-out bus.] The Rangers claimed in their bail statements that they did help Laughton pick up a woman from hospital, but that she appeared unharmed and if she was being kidnapped, they had no idea.

Now Laughton has told a court that the Rangers confused their dates and that they had in fact helped him pick up a woman from that same hospital, but that it was in 1995 and not 1999, and that the woman was Mary not Betty, and that she was not being kidnapped but was a friend or a relative of a security guard who worked for Laughton.

Expect prosecutor Herman Broodryk to spend hours interrogating Laughton’s new alibi and his explanation of the hospital incident. Much of this will be make-or-break for the defence.

Laughton also spent much of his three days on the stand discrediting his former friends Conway Brown, Paul Toft-Nielsen and Dirk Reinecke. All three were arrested with him but took deals and gave evidence against him. He, in turn, has called them liars who implicated him only to save themselves.

Laughton has given the court a rare glimpse into his private life; from his failed marriages to his army medals, and from his investigations to his run-ins with the law (including his previous conviction for perjury).

He has painted his arrest as unlawful, attacking the way his house was searched and (quite ironically given his own career) the police’s use of private investigators.

Crucial to his case, he has also given great detail about his feud with former Cranks owner Eric Neeteson-Lemkes. Cranks is the popular Rosebank restaurant (now closed) where Ketani worked as a cook and the site of one of Laughton’s investigations.

He claims that Neeteson-Lemkes was a “bitter and twisted” man who accused him of wasting his money and of interfering in his family. Laughton briefly dated Eric’s daughter Monique. All this, he claims, led to a “campaign of terror” from Eric, which included Laughton being arrested on two separate occasions. Both cases were thrown out of court due to a lack of evidence. Laughton also believes Eric was behind a robbery at his house in 2001.

So the spine of Carrington’s defence is that the confession, which was found under a carpet at Brown’s old house, was another one of Eric’s attempts to have him thrown in jail.

Led by his advocate, Laurence Hodes, Laughton has gone through each and every sentence of the “confession”, picking up on spelling and grammar mistakes he claims he would never have made and highlighting other, more serious, discrepancies. He’s also gone through all of the statements made against him, again denying any wrongdoing. The idea here is probably to cast as much doubt as possible on the evidence as a whole. From the smallest spelling mistake (“Alexander” instead of “Alexandra”) to more fundamental differences in the versions given by the so-called “accomplice witnesses”.

In conclusion, Laughton has delivered a forceful denial of any involvement in any of the crimes the state has accused him of. He had waited almost three years to speak, and when he did he came across as the kind of witness most lawyers dream about. The kind of witness who can recall from memory what letter and number is assigned to a specific document in a thick police docket. But the real test is yet to come: cross-examination. Stay tuned…

The Trial Must Go On

April 28, 2015

Judgment in the “Section 174” applications has been delivered. You’ll recall the defense launched the applications as soon as the state closed its case, asking the court to set the three accused free.

In essence, lawyers for Carrington Laughton and his co-accused, Carel and David Ranger, argued that the state has failed to make out a case; that the chain of evidence is broken; the witnesses against them are unreliable (“pathetic” was a word used); and that the trial has not been fair.

Fighting back, prosecutors argued the chain of evidence is intact and that while the witnesses were not perfect, they corroborated each other on key aspects of the case and were not manipulated in any way. They reminded the court about the DNA evidence and the handwriting analysis and accused the defense of making “quantum leaps” of reasoning.

Judge Natvarial Ranchod took just a minute or two to deliver his ruling, having thought about the arguments over a long weekend. Laughton and the Ranger brothers each faced eight counts. The judge discharged Laughton on three of these (two were conspiracy charges and one related to an earlier kidnapping of Betty Ketani). He also swept aside all but two of the charges which the Rangers faced.

All three accused, however, still have to answer to the two main charges against them, namely the kidnapping and the murder of Betty Ketani.

And so the trial enters its final phase, where the defense presents its case. Three years after the discovery of the confession under the carpet and his arrest, Laughton has stepped into the witness box to tell his side of the story….

Follow the trial on: @alexeliseev

State Closes its Case

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.

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