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Why cops accused of killing Tatane walked free

Regional Magistrate Hein van Niekerk found that the state did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, which is a requirement of a murder charge.

The state’s case, led by advocate Sello Mathloko, had suffered several embarrassments as state witnesses turned against it and said their statements had been coerced.

At the centre of the prosecution were three videos taken on the April 13 2011 when police officers appeared to assault Tatane, who then collapsed and died. One of these was the SABC one which spread the news across the world.

The Independent Police Investigative Directorate took the officers that had been present and allowed them to watch these videos, asking them to identify who they could see around Tatane. The problem was that the officers were all wearing helmets. 

One of their key objectives, which Mathloko kept asking witnesses during the trial, was to find which officer pulled the trigger on the shotgun which ultimately led to Tatane’s death. Two rubber bullets were found lodged in his body.

The findings of the independent directorate were then used in the founding documents of the trial, and formed the backbone of the case against the seven officers on trial for the death.

But the officers that were recorded in these documents soon derailed the prosecution’s case. Two said that their testimony had been coerced. One of these, Captain Matshidiso Lesomola, said he had made his statement under duress after two of the investigators had threatened him.

The other witnesses did not fare well under cross-examination from the defence’s advocate Johan Nel. At one point he got a witness to admit that he had made a mistake in recording the testimony and statements of officers the IPID had questioned. “We all make mistakes,” he said.

“Well that is quite a costly mistake,” said Nel. And this set the tone of his cross-examination as he put serious doubt on every witness’ testimony.

When it came time for him to call his own witnesses, he rested the case.

At the time David Ntholi, Tatane’s uncle and family spokesperson, said the case had been going on for far too long. Numerous postponements had seen it last nearly two years – Tatane died on April 13 2011.   

He also said the prosecution’s case had been undermined by not having anyone from the crowd testify. This saw the list of people testifying shrink from 17 to eight, he said.

When the Mail & Guardian visited Tatane’s home in Ficksburg the community had lost its initial enthusiasm for the trial. Where there used to be crowds of people with banners dancing outside the courtroom, now the wide streets sat empty.

People in the community reacted with surprise when asked about the case, and did not know that it was still going on. Most said that it had been going on for so long that they had lost interest, and did not expect that the police officers would be found guilty.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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