Van Breda: The many faces of a murderer
For 66 days we watched his many guises and listened to his innumerable lies, but none of them could save him
For 66 days, Henri van Breda, 23, was all swish ties and tailored suits.
He wore a neat little silver aeroplane on his lapel, and trimmed his hair at just the right moments of the trial when looking dapper counted and the length of his hair happened to be under scrutiny.
He even shaved it off completely at one point, playing the “water crisis” card, and almost carried his extra weight like some sort of gentle giant who sat stoically and silently in the courtroom while he was discussed in the third person.
Then, at one point in the trial, he took the stand: now the public caught a glimpse of the over-privileged (and overgrown) schoolboy – the smart alec full of cocky answers and condescending smiles for those way above his station in life.Not just that.
He also stood in sharp contrast to what his defence counsel would have us believe: far from the dithering wreck who would stumble over every word that came out of his mouth, he neither flinched nor faltered when Judge Siraj Desai poked holes in his narrative, or state prosecutor Susan Galloway barred no holds while cross-examining him.
It was during this somewhat chilling phase of the trial that he also took it upon himself to re-enact a carefully choreographed rendition of how the cliche of an intruder in a balaclava and gloves maniacally attacked his family while laughing.But, in the High Court in Cape Town on Monday, it was a third version of Van Breda who appeared in the morning, and by the afternoon was doing a walk of shame towards a future as a convicted man.
Monday’s Van Breda was a man with careless beard, and sunken eyes pushed into dark circles.
He could barely keep those eyes open and, throughout the day, would pass out for a split second, only to wake up to the grim reality of what was unfolding.That reality was the voice of Judge Desai, carefully dragging a critical comb through every strand of evidence that the defence had tried to bend to its favour.
Galloway had argued that nobody had penetrated the boundary of the luxury De Zalze Estate in Stellenbosch.
Desai had foreshadowed the verdict early in the day on Monday when he said “the court was in agreement” with this – “that it was highly unlikely the perimeter [of the luxury De Zalze estate] was breached by an intruder.”
He said Galloway had stated that the “location, security measures and position of the house” were what made it so implausible.Judge Siraj Desai said it would be odd for an intruder to try to wipe out an entire family and “leave one member” with so little harm, and said that Van Breda had not made any attempt to console or help his family members.
He said that Van Breda had shown “a peculiar lack of empathy” and instead phoned his teenage girlfriend.
This harked back to a moment in the trial when a clearly agitated Galloway had told Van Breda: “You sat smoking at the kitchen table while members of your family had been savagely attacked and your sister was still fighting for her life.”After making his way through a summary of every witness for both the state and the defence, Judge Desai confirmed the court’s belief that Van Breda’s wounds were self-inflicted, that a neighbour who said she heard an aggressive fight among males coming from the house was to be believed, that only one axe had been used in the attacks and that, in general and in each debate within a debate, there was “no reason to reject the evidence of the state witnesses”.
Not so for some of the defence witnesses – in particular Dr Antonel Olckers, an academic in DNA evidence, and Dr James Butler, a neurologist.
Olckers had gone to great lengths to undermine the evidence of Colonel Sharlene Otto whom, Desai pointed out, “had been working in a laboratory for 20 years”, and was a “seasoned and qualified member of the Forensic Science Laboratories”.Olckers, said Desai, “was not an impressive witness and insisted on formulaic academic answers”.
He also pointed out that the defence had “access to the DNA samples” but had not opted to retest them.
“It would have been the simplest of exercise to test a few random samples to test the validity of the results,” he said.
Dr James Butler, who had diagnosed Van Breda with Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy in the latter part of the trial, had said that it was likely Van Breda had had a seizure on the night in question and that this accounted for the missing two hours and 40 minutes from his narrative of events.But, Judge Desai said that Dr Butler’s backdated diagnosis two-and-a-half years later is a conclusion with “exaggerated influences as it is based on information that is incomplete” and that, at any rate, even if the court accepts that Van Breda had a grand mal seizure on the night of the incident, it had no bearing on his actions and decisions made before the seizure (in other words, the moments when the attacks took place).
It was an exhaustive process that took more than six hours of Judge Desai reading out his summary, but still, it played out like a potted history of the 66 days prior in court.One of the most poignant moments came at the end of the day when Judge Desai, who recently lost his wife to a long illness, seemed almost in tears as he said: “It is very difficult for me as a family man to say this, but there is only one reasonable inference that can be drawn from all the evidence and testimonies.”
With that, Henri van Breda was found guilty of murder, attempted murder and defeating the ends of justice.
As he disappeared down the stairs of the courtroom, there were simply two opposing forces at play: relief, and – for those who have become obsessed with the trial – a nagging sensation of “what now?”'He was my best friend'
Marli van Breda’s ex-boyfriend Stefan van der Westhuizen was one of few people in the court room who wept when judgment was handed down.
“(Henri) was a good friend of mine for a year, more than a year, and he was actually my best friend and it was very emotional for me to see him in that state and I felt very sorry for him,” he said outside the Cape Town High Court, his eyes still red from crying.
But he insisted he was “happy” with the judgment.“I think in certain verdicts, people’s opinions matter. Like my opinion might be different than other people’s opinion, and I think I’m happy about the outcome but we’ll see in two weeks with the postponement [until sentencing] how it will be,” said Van der Westhuizen.
His emotional reaction was in stark contrast to Henri’s stoicism as the judgment was read out. His lawyers meticously jotted down notes as Judge Siraj Desai spoke.
When the police cuffed his hands and led him to the cells below the court room, Henri van Breda still showed no emotion. He took his time, ignoring a shove from a policeman as he quickly spoke to his girlfriend, Daniel Janse van Rensburg, who was visibly distraught.A second person who had burst into tears when judgment was handed down was an elderly woman in a bright purple jersey, who had her eyes fixed on Van Breda throughout the morning. The woman, who did not want to be named, said, as a mother, she was saddened by the judgment.
“I just felt very cold. The thought of someone like that going to life imprisonment was heavy, and watching the two attorneys really put up a fight … he really fought for him, you know, to try and keep him out of custody,” she said.
“It was very sad. All Judge Desai’s points, at one stage it would look like he's possibly coming off with this, it was like walking a tight rope,” she said.“I felt for him you know, I’m a mother, I felt for him,” she said.
She said she still had more questions than answers.
“I just don't understand how you can do that to your family,” she said.
“Why? A young man ... Why did he do that, how did he think he was going to get away [with it]?” she said.
– Aron Hyman