‘Death squad’ cops: Judge cuts the claptrap. Let the trial begin at last!
After six years of bickering between lawyers and prosecutors, it's suddenly all action for the Cato Manor cops
Members of the so-called Cato Manor death squad may be a step closer to having their day in court, with a Durban judge clearing his schedule to hear a pivotal application which would have otherwise delayed the start of their trial by years.
Former KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Johan Booysen and 26 other officers, some of whom have left the police service, were arrested in 2012 on allegations that they had been running a “death squad”.
They face a litany of charges‚ including theft and murder‚ specifically of suspects during the course of their arrests. They allegedly killed suspects or rivals of taxi operators they were doing business with, and planted weapons to frame crime scenes – collecting incentive awards for good work as reward.
Booysen had racketeering charges against him set aside‚ only to have them reinstated by National Director of Public Prosecutions Shaun Abrahams in 2016.
Further review applications launched by Booysen and his co-accused are pending before the court.
The racketeering charges bind the otherwise separate cases of alleged criminal malfeasance together, and allow the members of the unit to be charged as one criminal syndicate.
If the racketeering charges are set aside, each criminal matter will be heard individually.
In the six years since their arrest, the officers have made 18 court appearances on allegations that they had been running a hit squad, eliminating taxi bosses and collecting cash incentives for a job well done.
They face 116 charges ranging from theft to murder, with the state alleging they audaciously killed their targets and planted weapons to support claims that they had operated in self-defence.
But with the review applications likely to be only concluded in several years, and with allegations that the state was deliberately delaying the outcome by the obstreperous late filing of documents, the squad’s lawyers sought to have the criminal charges withdrawn until interlocutory applications had been dispensed with.
Judge Graham Lopes, peering from the bench on Monday, brushed aside a fresh bid by the squad to have the criminal charges against them withdrawn pending the outcome of two separate review applications, which remain in the air.
Instead of making a ruling, and in a move out of left field, Lopes cleared his diary and ordered that a technical application – the first step in moving toward the start of their trial, which was set down to be heard in May next year – be argued before him on Friday.
“You want to get on with it? This is the way to do it,” he said tersely.
Lopes’s surprise move came after a day of arguments in the latest court application, with the state and the defence accusing each another of intentionally stalling the start of the trial.
Anton Katz SC, for the policemen, said the state had by a cocktail of ineptitude and intent, hamstrung the start of the trial.
He said the prosecution team had intentionally abused the court process and had consistently filed their papers late.
“It is the state who has taken steps to delay this. The applications have followed the [Rule 53] application process to the letter and the court must address why there has been a delay and who is at fault,” he said.
This was, he said, an undue delay and as a result, the policemen’s lives were in limbo.
However, Sello Maema, for the state, said it was the defence bringing “piecemeal” review applications that had caused the delay.
“We have been ready to proceed with the trial in this matter since 2012. This is an example of a group of people who do not want their day in court.”
After a short adjournment, Lopes questioned Katz and Maema on whether or not they were ready to proceed with May’s condonation application after each side accused the another of legal filibustering.
He seemed to catch both by surprise when, after they assured him they were ready, he ordered they would have to prepare their papers and argue the matter on Friday.
The cost of prosecuting the officers, who have been suspended on full pay since their arrest in 2012, continues to mount and is estimated to be in the tens of millions.