Susan Rohde's soul lost amid cold forensics as defence states its case
Her body becomes the site of a forensic battle in her husband's bid to wash his hands clean of her murder
It was a chilling moment in the High Court in Cape Town on Wednesday as murder accused Jason Rohde sat with his two-tone grey hair and repetitive blinking behind his advocate Graham van der Spuy.
“It was a dead weight of 52kg,” said Van der Spuy in one his Shakespeare-style heads of argument in which language most illustrious was varnished over the cold facts of science.
In that single moment, Susan Rohde – wife of the accused, mother to his children – simply became a hunk of flesh, the weight of which now came to bear on the culpability or innocence of her husband.
“Carrying a dead weight like that is a massive task,” said Van der Spuy, “and whether a person of his stature or height is able to do that without a trace is a good question”.
According to the state, he added: “The accused has now simulated a suicide to hide his murder – so he is now in the bathroom with his wife with the wire loosely around her neck, and the question is, how does he do that? How do you hold up a dead body and loop a cord around the dead body’s neck and hang the cord around a neck?”
Susan Rohde’s body was subjected to three different autopsies, one by the state pathologist, and two commissioned by the defence by pathologists whom the state said were “hired guns” to build a case for the accused.
It is a matter of course between the walls of the austere courtroom, but the reality is a far more disturbing and heartbreaking image: Details of Susan Rohde’s body being x-rayed were relayed in court during the defence’s closing arguments.
It is the nature of forensics, but it was disturbing to imagine her lying there like a “patient” (as the advocate himself kept erroneously calling her and then correcting himself) – not breathing and making polite chatter with a radiographer as she lies under the modern-technology-machine, but rather lying there silently as a corpse, her life either snuffed out by her own hand or that of her husband.
Van der Spuy also made much of Susan as a “dead weight” hanging on the back of a door, and the allegations that the accused locked the bathroom from the outside to fake her suicide.
“How do you hang a dead weight like that on a door? Whether you use double or single cord is of secondary concern; 52kg is a substantial weight.”
And, beyond the human body, one’s personal items suddenly become prized possessions to be prodded, analysed, clocked and counted. In the case of Susan Rohde, they were a treasure chest – most notably a personal diary – that likely held clues to her state of mind.
But, her missing handbag soon left a void in both the state and defence’s attempts to prove their case.
“Her diary has vanished and it could contain information which could exculpate the accused,” he said, but the response likely dancing around in the minds of everyone present was that the diary could, in equal measure, have proven that Susan’s life had reached the point where she was nothing but an albatross to Rohde and that, in a fit of rage, he might have taken her life.
The defence made much of the missing handbag, mentioning it at least five times, and tying it to his assertion that “every single investigation that the police conducted which produced favourable information for the accused were never put down in writing by the investigating officer”.
He said: “And yes, the investigating officer is employed by the state but is mainly there to see that justice is being done.”
Also missing in action, he says, was the autopsy report.
“My client gets charged and details of the state autopsy appear in the media nine months before the defence can get hold of that same report, and it wasn’t as if the defence was uncooperative,” he fumed in court.
On Thursday, when Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe finally tackles the verdict, perhaps Susan Rohde – either way – can return to being the tragic victim of a domestic drama and not a dead weight in the battle of forensic evidence.