Police bungling and their ignorance of the Child Justice Act could bode well for the teenage suspect accused of the murder of former AWB leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. But the forensic evidence offered this week in the Ventersdorp Circuit Court called into question 28-year-old suspect Chris Mahlangu’s argument that he had acted in self-defence after a fight with the farmer.
At least eight of the policemen who descended on Terre’Blanche’s North West farm on the night his body was found on a blood-soaked mattress have described to the court what happened on April 3 last year.
But as they were cross-examined in court their inexperience as witnesses became clear — just like the multiple mistakes they had made throughout the investigation.
The strongest state testimony was that blood-spatter evidence and the autopsy results revealed that Terre’Blanche never got a chance to defend himself. Colonel Ian van der Nest, a crime reconstruction expert, told the court blood-spatter patterns showed that Terre’Blanche was taken by surprise and was knocked out after the first blow to his head.
Pathologist Dr Ruweida Moorad gave corroborating evidence on Thursday. She said the first blow to his head, which pushed pieces of skull into his brain, was enough to “render him unconscious”.
But other police testimony was less convincing. Two policemen who took DNA evidence from the minor on the night of the murder admitted that they knew nothing about the Child Justice Act, which requires that the minor had to be held separately from adults in detention and a probation officer be contacted within 24 hours.
According to Norman Arendse, the teenager’s lawyer, the probation officer’s report was filed on April 14, more than 10 days after the crime.
The Child Justice Act
The Act requires that a child’s name in the police’s register of detainees must be highlighted in a different colour. Arendse said he asked the policemen for the register but was still waiting for it.
Arresting officer Jack Ramonyane admitted that he did not know about the law requiring a child’s name to be presented differently in the register.
The Act came into effect on April 1 last year, only two days before the murder, but it had been passed in November 2008.
Lorenzo Wakefield, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape’s Community Law Centre, told the Mail & Guardian: “It is not justifiable that the police were ignorant because there was more than a year to do training [before the Act came into effect].”
On the night of the crime Mahlangu and the teenager were stripped of their clothes for DNA testing after giving permission, Constable Peter Modise testified. Warrant Officer Bobby Sephiphi, who takes photographs and collects evidence at crime scenes, took DNA swabs of their hands and nails. But neither Sephiphi nor Modise had heard of the Child Justice Act and did not realise that a probation officer had to be present when evidence was collected from the minor.
When the defence takes the stand next year, Arendse said, he would argue that any DNA evidence collected from the teenager’s hands was inadmissible.
He said that when Sephiphi took the DNA evidence from the minor he was in the same police cell as the adult Mahlangu, which is another violation of the Act.
Arendse said the state could not argue for a mistrial but Judge John Horn would have to weigh up the procedural fumblings with the other evidence presented against the minor before giving a verdict.
‘The missing semen’
Further mistakes made by the police could play into Arendse’s hands and help to support his claim that there may have been a sexual assault. The police did not bag the blue underwear hanging on the headboard above Terre’Blanche’s body as evidence and defence attorney Zola Majavu has raised doubt that it belonged to Terre’Blanche.
Even better for the defence is what journalists observing the trial have been calling the “missing semen”.
Many witnesses testified that they saw what looked like semen on Terre’Blanche’s genitals.
The pathologist said that in a photo the fluid on his genitals clearly looked like semen, but when she did the autopsy it was not present. She said she “honestly did not know” what had happened to it and that it “may have been wiped off”.
The police did not take swabs of the fluid when they collected DNA evidence and the defence has asked whether they could be certain that the semen, if that is what it was, belonged to Terre’Blanche.
Van der Nest told the court he thought there was a reasonable explanation for Terre’Blanche having opened the buttons of his jeans. He proposed that the farmer might have been trying to accommodate his large stomach to make lying down more comfortable.
After this week’s testimony the trial was postponed to January 30 when it is expected the prosecution will wrap up its case.
Investigator found to have tortured a suspect in another case
Colonel Tsietsi Mano, who was investigating the Eugene Terre’Blanche murder case before being promoted to a more senior position in the police force, was previously found to have used torture to extract a false confession from a suspect.
Mano, who has not yet testified in the trial, has been referred to frequently by police who have taken the stand, with one blaming Mano for influencing him to falsify a statement about the murder.
In a 2008 civil case in the North Gauteng High Court, a judge found that Mano had “unleashed torture” on a man, who was suing the minister of safety and security as a result. Mano is also appearing in court on October 24 and 25 in two separate criminal cases for assaulting suspects in police custody, according to national police spokesperson Colonel Vishnu Naidoo. Other policemen have also been charged in both cases.
In 2008, traditional healer Madimetja Kutumela sued the minister of safety and security, arguing that police had charged him with kidnapping and murder of a female police officer without reasonable cause. Kutumela also claimed reparations from the government because he said police officers, including Mano, had given him electric shocks and his head had been covered with a wet bag to extract a false confession to the crime. At the time, North West police were investigating why their colleague, a female police officer, had disappeared.
The judge ruled that Mano “had unleashed torture with the notorious nat sak [wet bag] on the plaintiff and that, as a result, he had to alter his version of truth to lies for them to stop the torture, which was resumed at Jukskei River”. A source told the police, not under oath, that Kutumela kidnapped the missing police officer and sold her body parts for muti. The judge described Mano’s behaviour as “startling” because he continued to interview Kutumela after a police psychologist said the suspect knew nothing.
Mano was also one of 20 policemen who arrested former Scorpions head Gerrie Nel in 2008 at his home in front of his wife and children. Nel was the state prosecutor in the corruption case against Jackie Selebi in 2008 and was charged with fraud, defeating the ends of justice and perjury.
The charges against Nel were later withdrawn and the police criticised for the arrest.
For more on the life and times of the slain AWB leader, visit our special report.