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

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…

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.

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.

Court

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.

[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.

What will the DNA reveal?

February 26, 2014

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

http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-02-23-a-cold-case-a-sizzling-battle-betty-ketani-murder-trial-week-one/#.Uw1tTl5RHtI

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  

The Unraveling Begins…

February 18, 2014

After two long years, the Betty Ketani trial is finally underway. And so begins the grand unraveling of this 15-year-old murder mystery.

It’s thrilling how much detail has emerged in just one day. Things we didn’t know before about how Betty Ketani’s family searched for her and the police process which unfolded once she was reported missing. There are also fresh details about Betty’s life in Johannesburg, away from her children and family in the Eastern Cape.

The most significant aspect to emerge yesterday was a glimpse into what Carrington Laughton’s defense will be during this trial. His lawyer, Laurence Hodes SC, told the court that Laughton – who is the alleged author of the hidden confession – believes he has been set up. Framed. By Eric Neeteson-Lemkes, who was Ketani’s boss at the time and of course the owner of Cranks restaurant in Rosebank. So it appears Laughton is going to heap all the blame on Eric, who is not in South Africa to either stand trial or refute the allegations. You’ll remember that Eric fled the country in 2012, owing his landlord at the Rosebank Mall more than a million Rand. It’s believed he is now in Thailand.

The first witness to be called by prosecutor Herman Broodryk SC and his colleague Namika Kowlas was Johan Reynecke, a commander at the police’s missing persons unit. Reynecke testified about how the report into Ketani’s disappearance was handled. It was fairly technical and Reynecke was cross-examined about the possibility of Ketani crossing one of South Africa’s borders illegally between the time she was last seen (May 20, 1999) and the time the police circulated her as a missing persons (May 29, 1999). Once her name was circulated, she would have been flagged and stopped at any of the country’s border posts. What the defense is trying to do here is cast doubt on the fact that Ketani is dead. There’s no body in this case, only bone fragments which are going to be contested. So the defense is saying: “what if she was never killed? What if she simply left and is still missing? Can you prove that she has been murdered?”

Next up was Ketani’s brother Ronnie Bikauri. He testified about the days surrounding his sister’s disappearance. It was he who reported her missing to the police and so it was he who had to endure Hodes’ grueling cross-examination. He was forced to account for small discrepancies between his testimony and an earlier statement, speak about his sister’s private life and explain who was the last person to see her alive: her then boyfriend or her sister who shared a flat with Ketani. Bikauri said it was “impossible” that his sister would ever abandon her children and had never gone missing before. He also revealed that her ID book and all of her clothes were still at home and she went missing. Looking back at the yellowing SAP55 report, he went over emotive details like the outfit which Betty was wearing on the day: blue jeans, red jacket and red, green and yellow shoes. She certainly liked bright colours.

In essence, the defense has moved to plant seeds of doubt about whether Ketani is in fact dead and whether it may have been her boyfriend who killed her. As for Laughton, he’s being “set up”. We haven’t heard much from the Ranger brothers. Carel and David placed themselves at the hospital scene during their bail application and it’s going to be interesting to see how they try and explain that later on. All three have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and kidnapping.

As usual, family members were in court to support the three accused. Laughton’s wife and father were there. The Rangers had a few relatives in the public gallery.

From here, we’re expecting to hear from the family which found the confession while pulling up old carpets. Werner Nortje, a supermarket chef, is likely to testify on behalf of his family. I suspect he will be in for a tough cross-examination, but the real battle between the state and the defense will come afterwards and will revolve around how the letter was handled and by whom.

The trial continues.

Follow every development at: @alexeliseev and @ewnreporter

I will update this blog as often as possible over the next three weeks. I am aiming for at least two or three updates a week, depending on the testimony and deadline pressures.

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