Van Breda: The mystery of the silence of the lambs
The lack of noise in the Van Breda house on the night of the axe attack is like a wordless chorus that was played over and over again in court
“We never said they were like lambs to the slaughter, silently being axed.”
That’s what advocate Piet Botha said in the Cape Town High Court last week with a now bald-headed Henri van Breda sitting quietly behind him, his lack of hair only emphasising the dark circles under his eyes.
Botha’s response, in his closing arguments, came just after Judge Siraj Desai posed a question that has hung over the triple axe-murder trial from day one and which, 66 days later, remains unanswered: “Why did nobody make a noise? Why did nobody shout for help? Nobody made a scene. It was almost like they submitted to being axed.”
The sound of silence drawn over 12 Goske Street on January 27 2015 when four of five family members were brutally attacked with an axe is like a wordless chorus that has played out over and over again.
Even Sasha the dog, a small breed primed for barking at strangers, didn’t make a peep.
Was she holed up in the garage, silenced by not bearing witness, her small paws kept away from the many litres of blood that pooled on the upstairs floor and, according to an emergency responder, “flowed down the stairs like a waterfall”?
She left not a single paw print.State prosecutor Susan Galloway has repeatedly raised this, arguing that Sasha was neatly packed away behind the garage door to keep her quiet.
When Van Breda testified, he said the dog’s silence could be explained thus: “Sasha barked at familiar sounds like a ringing phone”, but not at “unfamiliar sounds like a stranger coming into the house”.
It is only around 10pm – some four hours before the frenzied attack – that this dastardly real-life movie has any soundtrack at all, and one which the state and defence describe in directly opposite tones.
At that time of the night neighbour Stephanie Opt’hof – home with two small kids while her husband is away – hears “loud aggressive male voices” as they have a “fight” at 12 Goske Street.
All she has to go on is what she heard, not what she saw.
And, she insisted under harsh cross-examination, what she heard was a fight between males – a soundtrack of family dissent.
But, says Botha, the soundtrack she heard was part of a different picture altogether – one of a close-knit family who ate a meal together, cracked open a bottle of wine and then hunkered down on the couch to watch Star Trek 2 – or was it Star Wars?
This week Botha joked that he often got the two movie franchises mixed up but that his co-counsel, Matthys Combrinck, had put him right.
He also said this week that Opt’hof had been “swayed by social media” in the time that lapsed between the killings and when she stepped into the witness box.
Galloway refuted that this week, saying Opt’hof had been a “credible witness” throughout, someone who, without anyone to say differently, could have claimed the actual attack woke her kids at 4am, and not a fight around 10pm.It is then in the early hours of the morning that the eeriest silence of all shrouds this case. After four members have been savagely attacked and, by his own version of events Henri’s two siblings are still alive, he remains quiet – not calling for help from neighbours, not rushing in a panic to call emergency services.
In her scathing closing arguments this week, Galloway said it was very suspicious that the only calls he made soon after the attacks were to his girlfriend, “a 16-year-old living in a school hostel who could do nothing about it”, and that he “sat smoking in the kitchen waiting for his family members to die before calling emergency services”.
It is only after 7am when the silence is broken – and he finally puts in the call for medical help.
On their side, the defence attributes Henri’s silence over almost three hours to a “postictal state”.
In other words, they say, he had “had a seizure brought on by myoclonic juvenile epilepsy” just after the attacks, and that the seizure left him confused and unable to rationalise how to respond to the situation.
The seizure, they argued, explained “his dull appearance in the ambulance the next day”, the failure to “go and call neighbours for help”, and the wetting of his pants.
Then, when the call is finally made to emergency services, another “soundtrack” on which the state and the defence differ sharply, kicks in: when the call was played back to the courtroom, the shroud of calmness over Henri's voice as his family lay bleeding out haunted the halls of justice.
Silence was now replaced by softness – slow and measured – as he described his dead family members and a sister still breathing and moving.For their part, the defence this week compared Van Breda to Winston Churchill, a man who used special techniques to control a speech impediment.
“He spoke so calmly because that is how he keeps his stutter under control,” Botha has said throughout the trial, adding more recently that the “postictal state” also played a role.
Now, with the state and defence’s case having calcified into two very different stories, the waiting game begins.
And in its void comes the most frustrating silence of all – Marli van Breda, who was left for dead, clung to life, won, but has no memory of that fateful night.