Hopefully that’s the last word on Van Breda: judge is over it
Not once did Judge Siraj Desai let slip his professional approach, even though it was clear he felt drained
Over more than 70 days in the courtroom stretching across more than a year in the Henri van Breda axe murder trial, Judge Siraj Desai was a paragon of meticulousness – ensuring that the wheels of justice took no shortcuts at all.
With Van Breda spending upwards of R5m on his defence, no stone was left unturned as more and more far-fetched theories were dished up by a defence team taking instruction from a young and wealthy client.
Van Breda was convicted of murdering his parents, Martin and Teresa, and his brother Rudi at their luxury home in Stellenbosch back in 2015 with an axe. He was also convicted of attempting to murder his sister Marli.
For every piece of evidence, there was a story – from his wounds which experts agreed were self-inflicted, to the missing gap in his timeline, to a fight amongst males overheard by an earwitness who lives in the same security complex.These were explained away, respectively, by “an intruder” with whom he had a scuffle, a seizure which left him in a dwaal, and the soundtrack to a Star Trek movie.
Not once did the judge let slip his professional approach – but still, it was sometimes clear he felt utterly drained by the proceedings over which he was presiding and on some occasions could barely hide his irritability.
This was most apparent when Van Breda himself had stepped into the witness box – a decision which historically works against any accused whether guilty or innocent, and which his defence team had clearly not been too happy about.
During this “phase” of the trial, one could see Judge Desai patiently enduring the schoolboy stroppiness of Van Breda’s attitude – up to a point.
And then he would suddenly put his foot down, like a father who had gone beyond the call of duty to allow a child to spin a yarn so that perhaps the truth would inadvertently emerge alongside it.
But then patience runs out.And so it was on Monday, the day earmarked for a last gasp, that he refused Van Breda leave to appeal both the convictions and the sentences in the Supreme Court, and punctuated this decision by saying: “Hopefully that is the last word on this case”.
And there was nothing glib about those words.
Even by mid November last year, he had been candid about how the trial – protracted by its very nature – had exasperated him.
Around that time, there had been a two-week delay during which the defence was arming itself for leading its evidence in chief.The state had wrapped up two weeks prior.
But just as the trial resumed, another twist and turn presented itself …
All the characters in this drama had reappeared in court one at the High Court – not only the judge, defence team, and state prosecution team, but also the ever expanding and contracting clutch of journalists, court watchers in the public gallery, and friends and family of both the deceased and the then-accused.But within minutes of everyone taking their seats, Van Breda’s advocate Piet Botha announced that his client had had a seizure of sorts, and just a few days before the trial resumed, had been diagnosed with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy as a result.
Because of this, he said, a neurologist called James Butler needed more time to put his report together.
One could virtually see the last scraps of energy being drained from the bottom of Judge Desai’s soul.
Exasperated, he said, “I want to get on with my life” to which Van Breda’s own advocate replied, “So do I.”His hope that Monday marked “the last word” on this case was like some sequel to that moment in November.
His decision to turn down the application for leave to appeal the convictions and sentence in the Supreme Court came about because, “Advocate Botha had not advanced any compelling reason” as to why the appeal should be heard or would have any “reasonable prospect of success” there.He said Botha’s seeking leave to appeal was “premised upon the argument that this court erred and misdirected itself” and that “the proven facts exclude a reasonable inference” that it was not Van Breda who carried out the brutal attacks at 12 Goske Street at the luxury estate in Stellenbosch in 2015.Judge Desai said the arguments presented by Botha this time around were “similar to, if not the same as, those presented during the trial itself.”
He added, “the evidence establishes conclusively that the applicant was responsible for the commission of these offences and there is no room for any reasonable doubt.”
So is this the end of the road for Van Breda?In all likelihood yes – unless the very last ace up his sleeve proves fruitful.
Botha told journalists after the conclusion of Monday’s proceedings that he has instructions from his client to petition the Supreme Court of Appeal directly, and that this would be done within the stipulated fifteen days.
It might be premature, therefore, to say definitively that the state has had the last laugh in this matter.
But that is just technically speaking.
It’s far more likely that Van Breda’s laugh will taper off to a whimper behind bars.