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.


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.


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: / 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.


(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.


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:

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

Carte Blanche: Bringing Betty Home:


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 

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 

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…

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.

[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

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