National

The court of public opinion

Sarah Evans

Oscar Pistorius's peer, a girlfriend killer too, has been arguing his innocence in the courtroom next door.

Plea for leniency: Thato Kutumela was found guilty of raping and killing his girlfriend, Zanele Khumalo. (Phill Magakoe)

The courtroom next door to the one occupied with Oscar Pistorius's trial had been transformed into an overflow room. Journalists spilled over into the passages of the high court in Pretoria, occupying the wooden benches outside. Unbeknown to many of these journalists, in another nearby courtroom were a grieving mother and a young man facing life in prison for murder. 

That court on Thursday heard arguments in mitigation of sentencing in the State vs Thato Kutumela (28), found guilty of raping and murdering his then 18-year-old girlfriend, Zanele Khumalo, in April 2011.

A television journalist flitted between the two trials, tweeting details from both. A few notebook-laden hacks stood awkwardly outside the door. Should they go in, they wondered aloud. 

Besides their whispers, the only other sounds inside the courtroom were the voice of clinical psychologist Suzette Heath, Judge Johan Kruger's measured interjections and the maddening hum of Pistorius-related activity beyond the door.

Family members occupied a few benches in the sparsely populated court. The diminutive accused's head and shoulders stuck out from behind the dock. Khumalo was 18 years old when he entered her house, raped her and strangled her to death. She was five months pregnant.

Tumultuous relationship
Her family had tried to keep them apart, the court heard, as their relationship became increasingly tumultuous. Khumalo's father had banned Kutumela from their house.

The police had not suspected Kutumela after initially questioning him. The court had previously heard how the accused had co-operated with the police, and was released. But when the DNA results came back from the laboratory, Kutumela had proved a match.

But evidence by Heath on Thursday painted a different picture of Kutumela. He was an introvert, she said, and coped with stress by withdrawing. He was more likely to "sulk" if he was upset than to act out in rage, or even to verbalise his feelings. These were not traits consistent with a rapist or murderer, she believed, but conceded that even psychometric tests had their exceptions.

Kutumela had opened up to her during their consultations, volunteering information, and this indicated to Heath that he had not been trying to hide things from her. He had maintained his innocence, in spite of Kruger's 2013 guilty verdict against him, during all of their meetings, Heath told the court.

In prison he had lost the addresses and phone numbers of most of his family and friends, including of his grandmother, who had raised him. This had made Heath's task of corroborating Kutumela's story more difficult. But after some searching, she managed to conduct interviews with his close family, she said.

Absent lawyer
His lawyer, Advocate Anneke van Wyk, could not attend proceedings on Thursday, so a colleague stood in for her. This worried Kutumela immensely, the court heard, but the judge asked him to be mindful that the expense of flying the Cape Town-based lawyer to Pretoria was costly for Legal Aid.

"I want you to know that I will bend over backwards to protect your rights," Kruger said. "I understand your position and I will request that today's record be typed and made available to all counsel."

Kruger appeared anxious not to postpone the hearing; the trial had gone on for "many years".

Heath said Kutumela was "not coping, he is quite depressed, I'd say going out of his mind [with depression] at times. He suffers from a low self-esteem."

But prosecutor George Baloyi said Heath's report did nothing to help the court to determine an appropriate sentence, and tried to discredit her methodology in assessing Kutumela's personality. Baloyi said the tests used by Heath were based on research conducted on American college graduates.

He said her evidence contradicted that of a previous witness, the state's preferred psychologist, who had found Kutumela to be "violent".

Then the court door creaked opened once more, and the television journalist left. The courtroom next door had returned from the tea break – the Pistorius case had resumed.


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