Tears as Hannah’s friend faces her 'killers' in court
Cheslin Marsh breaks down as he relives the hellish night Hannah Cornelius was raped and bludgeoned to death
On the one side of the courtroom sat Cheslin Marsh, gasping for air, as he battled to fight off fits of uncontrollable sobbing.
On the opposite side of the courtroom, staring him down, sat the four men accused of raping and murdering his friend, Hannah Cornelius.
“You don’t have to look at the accused, Mr Marsh. Look at the madam judge and answer to her,” concerned prosecutor Lenro Badenhorst told Marsh, the first witness in the trial that started in the Cape Town High Court on Wednesday.
Marsh’s raw outpouring of emotion filled the courtroom with the horror of the events that occurred in the early morning hours of May 27 2017. That was when two young Stellenbosch University students, in the final moments of an evening where a new friendship had started to blossom, were pounced upon by men with monstrous intent.
He testified how he met Cornelius last year on Friday, May 26 at the Bohemia bar frequented by students. The two of them joined a group of friends and had a few drinks at the Eendracht men’s residence before going to dance at one of Stellenbosch’s many dance haunts. They then walked back to Eendracht where they played dominoes.
Marsh testified that just after midnight he said he wanted to go home and so did Cornelius. He walked her to her residence, the Irene girls’ residence.
Badenhorst asked Marsh to explain what she was like. With great difficulty, Marsh stared in front of him as though the moments in conversation with her played out in his mind again.
“She was good hearted. She always put other people’s interests ahead of her own,” he said.
When Marsh wanted to go home to his flat on the other side of town, Cornelius insisted on driving him home.
“I said it’s ok, I’ll go with my longboard [a type of a skateboard]. She insisted on taking me home,” he said.
He then went back to Eendracht to pick up his backpack and his longboard and he said again that he was fine with his using his longboard to get home.
“She insisted on driving me home because she said it was very late. She said that she would then drive behind me. I agreed to drive in the car,” he said.
The two stopped at the parking lot near the Nuveau block of flats where he stayed. There the two chatted for a short while before he opened the door to get out. As they said their last goodbyes, a hand grasping a screwdriver reached in through Cornelius’s half-open driver’s window. The sharp end pointed at her chest. Just as Marsh grabbed it another man came from behind him through the passenger seat door and pointed a knife at him.
“Sit still or she dies,” said the person. According to videotaped testimony to detectives by Vernon Witbooi, one of the men accused in the case, the man with the knife was Jeraldo Parsons, the second accused.
Witbooi, Parsons, Eben van Niekerk and Nashville Julius then robbed them of their cellphones and wallets. Marsh said Cornelius was put in the back seat between two men while he was put in the boot.
The men threatened to kill Cornelius if she didn’t give them the keys to the car. She begged them to steal everything from them but to leave the car because it was her grandmother’s.
Marsh, who had up to this point been able to speak in short sentences, started breaking down on the witness stand as he was forced to recall the memories he had long tried to bury.
His right temple bears the scars from the injuries he sustained that night.
He testified that he could then sense that they were driving away from Stellenbosch on the R304. “I was anxious and in shock. I felt helpless,” he said.
From the testimony of Witbooi it is alleged that they then drove to Kraaifontein where they met another man. At one point they stopped, got out and opened the boot.
Marsh said that one person said to another person: “Look here”, before they took his jacket and his wallet with his FNB and Capitec bank cards inside. He gave them the wrong PIN number and when they came back they took his diamond earrings.
Their abductors then drove further until they stopped again to buy tik. He could hear the sound of lighters and then a whistling sound. They were smoking tik in the car. When they stopped again one of the men got out of the car, now more irate from having smoked tik.
“Why did you give me the wrong PIN?” he asked Marsh. Marsh said he told them they had used the wrong card.
The men then drove off again and stopped at someone’s residence. Someone came and asked them whether they wanted to smoke inside. They all got out along with Cornelius.
Marsh said that one of them said they could not leave “the child” in the car alone, referring to her. “When they came back they were quiet,” he said.
They drove again and then Cornelius asked them where they were going and what they were going to do, said Marsh.
“They said they were going to smoke and give back the car,” he testified.
They stopped one more time and drove off again until they hit a gravel road, which Marsh said he could feel from the boot of the car.
They were nearing the place where they would try and “get rid” of Marsh, and the threshold of the painful memory his mind could endure for the day.
Then Badenhorst asked him: “What did her voice sound like?”
“She was very soft ... You could hear she was scared,” he whispered and started wailing.
His cries echoed in the silence of the courtroom. The matter was adjourned until Thursday.
But Witbooi’s videotaped statement already told the court what would happen next.
He said three of the four men stopped next to the road and raped Cornelius.
“Somewhere along the road we stopped at a bush again. While we drove we smoked again‚” said Witbooi.
“At the bushes Geraldo said that we were now going to have sex with the girl. I said that I was not here for that and that I was just here for the money.
“[They] took the girl into the bushes and I stayed in the car and smoked. After a while they came back and I saw that the girl was still busy putting her jacket back on.
“While we were driving‚ Geraldo said that I missed out ... ”
She was later dropped off next to the road. Her body was found by farmworkers the following day, bludgeoned to death.
Marsh was assaulted and dumped before the men stopped to rape Cornelius.
Her father and disabled brother were not in court on Wednesday. Her mother, Anna, drowned earlier this year when she went for a morning swim in the ocean at Scarborough in Cape Town.