Killer day in court: Rohde hit by triple whammy of setbacks
It started with a row with the judge, then things got even worse for the wife murderer
“That’s what happens when you kill your wife,” said one seasoned court observer after Jason Rohde sustained a string of setbacks during sentencing proceedings at the high court in Cape Town on Thursday.
First, his advocate had a row with the judge which resulted in a sudden adjournment. Then, no sooner had his eldest daughter reached the witness box than she changed her mind about testifying in mitigation of his sentence.
Finally, after revealing the case could not resume until February, the judge rejected an application to free him on bail so he could spend one final Christmas with his three daughters at his home in Plettenberg Bay.
Before his next court appearance, Rohde faces 74 nights in Pollsmoor Prison, in Tokai, during which he will be able to contemplate a minimum sentence of at least 15 years for murdering his wife, Susan, at Spier in Stellenbosch in July 2016.
Just three Christmases ago he was the CEO of a property company, living in a R10m house in Bryanston, enjoying holidays in Plett with his attractive wife and children, and embroiled in a secret love affair with Cape Town estate agent Jolene Alterskye.
Seven months later he killed Susan Rohde during a company conference at Spier and tried to make it look like a suicide.
Rohde himself became suicidal in February this year, his psychiatrist told Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe on Thursday, giving evidence in mitigation of sentence.
Dr Kevin Stoloff said he admitted the former head of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty to a clinic in Cape Town during a “severe depressive episode”.
But Stoloff, who has treated Rohde since September 2016, said when he last met the killer, five days after his conviction on November 8, “he did not have symptoms of severe depression and was not suicidal. He expressed some hopefulness for the future.”
Stoloff said he had come to know Rohde as “a somewhat private person who has been ambitious and successful. Prior to the murder he would have been someone who I would have described as having more than adequate self-esteem.
“He is even-tempered. He is not volatile or unstable. He does not seem to be controlling, there is no history of rage or physical violence.
“His approach to confrontation has always been to walk away or back down, rather than escalation.
“He is consistent, kind, has a capacity for empathy, does not externalise blame, and this is evidenced by his feelings of enormous guilt and enormous remorse, in the sense that he feels responsible for Mrs Rohde’s death as a result of his extramarital affair.
“In my opinion, he fits none of the psychiatric, psychological or personality criteria of men who kill their spouses. It would have been totally out of character for Mr Rohde to have committed the acts of which he has been found guilty.”
Stoloff said he was concerned about Rohde’s psychiatric fragility, and this should be borne in mind when a decision was made about where he would be imprisoned.
Defence advocate Graham van der Spuy’s clash with Salie-Hlophe came when he asked Stoloff to testify in detail about Rohde’s admission to the Crescent Clinic in Kenilworth.
The lawyer said he wanted to explore the incident because Rohde’s compliance with court orders, and his conduct during the case, was a significant mitigating factor when it came to sentencing, and he was anxious that his client should not be prejudiced by his failure to appear in February, when he was under psychiatric care.
He pointed out to the judge that Rohde’s failure to appear in February was one of the reasons she had denied bail after Rohde’s conviction on November 8.
But Salie-Hlophe told him this was not a bail application and asked him to move on with his examination of Stoloff.
When Van der Spuy requested clarification on whether he could continue with his line of questioning, an argument developed and the judge left the bench after accusing Van der Spuy of “taking your finger and throwing it in the air”.
When court resumed several hours later, Salie-Hlophe admonished Van der Spuy for being “disrespectful” and said she hoped he had calmed down.
After Stoloff’s evidence was completed, Van der Spuy said he intended to call Rohde’s eldest daughter, Katie, 20, but asked that she be allowed to testify in camera, without the press and public present.
But Salie-Hlophe ruled that the press could remain in court, that audio of Katie’s testimony could be broadcast, but that cameras should not focus on her.
The judge said: “[She] finds herself in an unimaginably difficult and painful situation. Though she is an adult, the court acknowledges that her testimony will be on matters that are sensitive and traumatic to her.”
However, she said, justice must be seen to be done, and her ruling struck a balance between the interests of justice and a reasonable measure of protection for the young woman.
As the young woman made her way to the witness box, her father’s attorney, Tony Mostert, explained the ruling to her, and after she had been sworn in Van der Spuy, said she had changed her mind about testifying.
“She’s too frightened,” said Van der Spuy. “May I ask for an adjournment to get clarity and instructions.”
Katie’s decision remained the same, at which point Van der Spuy made his fresh application for bail, pointing out that there was “an extraordinarily lengthy period of time” until the case would resume.
“I appreciate that he has been convicted of a serious offence ... and that in the absence of the defence being able to provide compelling circumstances that he faces a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment. However, he has not yet been sentenced,” said the lawyer.
“I do believe that his track record of co-operation and compliance ... is as close to 100% as one could possibly get in the circumstances.
“He cannot leave the country’s borders. His asset base has been decimated by this case. He no longer has a house, or access to a house, in Johannesburg. The only immovable property in his name is in Plettenberg Bay, which he regards as his permanent place of residence.
“The children are at a crucial stage where they need their father following his conviction and before he gets sentenced. The children regard him as their father, as their rock, as their source of guidance.”
Van der Spuy said Rohde was willing to wear a tracking device and to report to a police station daily while on bail, but prosecutor Louis van Niekerk said the judge’s previous denial of bail should stand.
“There are no new facts placed before the court. The only circumstance that has changed is that there is going to be a postponement for two months,” he said.
Salie-Hlophe said: “As regards the children, the court accepts that this is a very difficult time for them. I am, however, satisfied that they are well-loved by the extended family.”
The fact that the case was not yet over was as a result of a two-week delay sought by the defence on November 21. “As such, I do not consider that the reality that we have to postpone proceedings to February is a justifiable new fact.”
Van der Spuy said on February 18 he would be calling two friends of Rohde, Craig Fleischer and Craig Livingstone, as well as Rohde’s mother, Brenda Rohde, to give evidence in mitigation of sentence.