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Victim’s assailant too close for comfort

Nearly 20 years after a brutal attack left Alix Carmichele with a shattered arm that continues to plague her and with a landmark court ruling under her belt that has etched her forever in the legal textbooks, she was shocked to find that her attacker is living close by. 

Francois Coetzee, the man who brutally attacked the photographer at the beachfront home of her friend in August 1995, is under house arrest in the Knysna area where he will apparently continue to live when he is finally released. 

He allegedly wears an ankle bracelet that monitors his movements and has four months left of his sentence. 

Coetzee, whose convictions include assault and the attempted murder of two other women, was released on October 27 last year under house arrest after spending almost half his life in jail. 

Prison authorities have said Coetzee had been a model prisoner over the past few years, despite having attacked a woman warder while in jail. He was selected to address pupils at a school near Knysna on the negative consequences of crime. 

In January, he was arrested for carrying a panga in a township near Knysna, but was released without further action being taken. 

A police spokeswoman quoted in the Weekend Argus said the department of justice had decided that the circumstances of the incident did not constitute a crime in terms of the Dangerous Weapons Act. 

Carmichele, who lives on a farm in Knysna with her mother, said this was cold comfort for his victims. 

“I discovered about the arrest by accident. No one had the decency to let me or the other victim, who lives down the road, know. 

“As far as the authorities are concerned, he has served his time — he has been to prison. I have been told by [the] correctional services [department] that there is nothing more they can do.”

Carmichele is aware that the circumstances she now finds herself in is a plight faced by many victims of violent or sexual assault. 

“The young woman he almost killed lives just down the road. She has to live knowing he is now back here and living in the area.”

For Carmichele and some of Coetzee’s other victims the threat will never be removed. They have spent years trying to ensure that Coetzee, sentenced to nine years for a previous assault on a then 17-year-old girl, and an effective 12-and-a-half years for the attack on Carmichele, served his full sentence. 

Lisa Vetten, a researcher for the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, said it is unusual for the victims of sexual assault even to find out that their assailant has been released on bail. 

“Usually they have moved out of the area and often they cannot be found to be informed. This case is unusual in that the victim has been kept informed and has been able to make her representation to the parole board over the years.”

Vetten said the difficulty is that offenders can only be released from prison if they have somewhere to live and where they can be contacted or monitored by the correctional services department, and this usually means they return to their families. In Coetzee’s case, he is living with his mother. 

Vetten said for most victims it’s the discovery that their assailant has been released from jail on bail that is generally the shock. “It’s suddenly seeing the person back in the area,” she said. “It’s not clear from research how many are harassed by their assailants again because it does not always get recorded.”

What she found was that women might not report harassment. “And if they do, they quickly disengage — they decide society cannot protect them and they leave the area.”

She said the problem was the worst in rural areas where accused persons are jailed in local police stations because the nearest prison is kilometres away. “Often these people are released on bail simply because the cells are just too small to accommodate all of them.” 

Vetten said the Carmichele case is “a very difficult and complex case”. “The person involved has served his time and is deemed to have been rehabilitated.

“The system does not do a good job for the offenders either,” said Vetten. “They can serve the time they have been sentenced to, but often come back into a community that ostracises them. Their criminal record makes it very hard for them to find work and, in a case like this, where a person has spent most of their life in jail, it’s difficult to adapt to life outside of prison.”

It’s not without a sense of irony that Carmichele acknowledges that she has spent nearly two decades fighting to have the state take responsibility for the attack on her — Coetzee was out on bail at the time for assault and the attempted murder of a teenager while he was serving a four-year suspended sentence for assault. 

Carmichele successfully sued the ministers for safety and security, and justice, for negligence for allowing Coetzee to be released on bail. For 12 years, she pursued the matter through every court in the land, including the Constitutional Court. 

In the end, victory was hers, in court anyway. As a result of her court challenge, the police can now be held criminally liable if an assailant, already facing charges of sexual assault, sexually assaults a person while out on bail. 

Court papers relating to the Carmichele case paint a picture of a troubled Coetzee, who repeatedly targeted women in increasingly violent attacks. 

Carmichele said she never set out to be a campaigner. 

“At the end of the day, what did I really achieve? My case is apparently quoted in legal textbooks but honestly does it [the Constitutional Court judgment] protect women and children? No. The person has to be raped or assaulted by someone who already has an assault charge against them.” 

Carmichele said the hardest part of the long legal battle had been the fight over quantum. “My case was split into two parts — the merits and the quantum. I first had to fight the merits of the case before I could claim for damages. 

“The quantum part of the case has to be the worst experience I have ever had in my life — I would rather go through that assault again on that day! It was very invasive.

“Your whole life is laid out for public scrutiny. They called expert witnesses to evaluate me, and they made out I was a malingerer and that my arm was fine and that I was capable of working. But, of course, I had my witnesses who countered them. 

“No one considered that there had been losses of earnings and that I had a series of operations on the arm every two years.” 

Her mother, Charlotte Webber, in a television interview would refer to the process as “incredibly cruel … and invasive”. “They launched an investigation into her life, and for what?” she said. 

Coetzee, who had lain in wait for Carmichele at her friend’s home where his mother worked as a domestic worker, attacked Carmichele with a pickaxe handle and a knife. She was left with a fractured skull, a shattered arm and deep knife wounds to her chest. 

So violent was the attack that Coetzee bent the knife blade against her breastbone. She managed to run out of the house and on to the beach where people were fortunately walking past. 

Of concern to Carmichele is that she was not a random victim, someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. Carmichele knew her attacker and she and the owner of the house had already launched a campaign to have him put in jail because of his long history of violence against women. 

Carmichele opposed Coetzee’s parole applications, beginning in 2006 — the year he attacked a woman warder while serving part of his sentence at Malmesbury Prison. 

“At the end of the day I changed the law, but in retrospect I feel like I lost 15 years of my life. And for what, really? 

“I think a lot of people thought it was about the money, but seriously the settlement I received was barely enough to pay my medical bills and debt.

“My legal team fought for 12 days over the quantum because government understood the significance of the case and, at the end of the day, everyone who was involved in the legal side got paid, whether I won or lost my case. 

“I think at the time I was driven by outrage. I was outraged that, as a privileged white person, this had happened to me in the first place. 

“I feel for people who do not have a voice. At the time that is what I think I believed I was doing — representing those who had no voice.”

Asked whether, knowing what she knows now, she would follow the same course of action, Carmichele paused for a second. “I have been asked that, and yes I would. In retrospect, in the beginning, I wanted retribution. I believed I would win and prove something. I would force the police to take responsibility for what happened and who knows maybe it was about proving something. 

“Despite everything, I would pursue this case again.”

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