Witnesses all got it wrong, says wife killer Rohde’s defence at appeal
Time of death in pathology report, evidence from traces of bodily fluids and witness testimonies come into firing line
Judgment was reserved in the Supreme Court of Appeal on Monday shortly after it heard the case of convicted murderer Jason Rohde, whom the Western Cape high court convicted of murdering his wife Susan.
The former property consultant is trying to get the SCA to overturn the high court judgment, which found that he had strangled and smothered his wife to death in a plush Stellenbosch hotel in July 2016. This after she had learnt he was still having an affair and wanted to end their marriage.
The court also found him guilty of trying to cover this up by staging the scene to make it look like she had committed suicide by hanging.
He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
On Monday, Rohde’s lawyer Francois van Zyl SC, who successfully defended honeymoon murder accused Shrien Dewani, tried to punch holes in many of the crucial testimonies delivered by the state witnesses during Rohde’s trial.
He took aim everything from the pathology report that provided her time of death to the traces of faeces found on the scene suggesting she had been moved from the place where she had died to the bathroom where she was found hanging, the blood traces on the bedding and pillow, and the origin of the blood that was found in her stomach, thought to be about a cupful.
Rohde’s legal team tried to discount the evidence of a hotel employee who was there when Rohde found his wife’s lifeless body in the bathroom.
Van Zyl submitted that the testimony of hotel worker Desmond Daniels was filled with loopholes, including whether Susan had been naked when they found her in the bathroom, which was locked.
Van Zyl also highlighted the time frames that he gave as inaccurate, as well as evidence on how the noose – made from a hair curler – had been created.
On the pathology report by Dr Akmal Khan, Van Zyl said he, too, erred by giving her time of death as 5.40am because this was the time the Rohdes were seemingly still involved in a heated argument. Van Zyl submitted that Khan had failed to take into consideration the temperature of the bathroom floor, which would have affected how quickly the body went into lividity. She was believed to have died two hours after the time stipulated by Khan.
Khan had alleged that the lividity had led him to believe that Susan died lying down and not in a hanging position. Van Zyl stated that the court had disregarded the evidence of two medical witnesses who had disputed Khan’s testimony and the medical explanations they gave for this.
He said Khan’s suspicions that Susan had died from murder and not suicide had led him to handle his scene analysis in a particular fashion, adding he failed to take pictures of the back of her neck, which would have perhaps shown contusion marks from the hanging.
“His mind was made up and he looked for that which confirmed his conclusions and ignored other possibilities,” Van Zyl said in his head of arguments. “He did not carry out procedures or investigations that would have been employed by an objective pathologist.”
On Rohde’s own testimony, Van Zyl said the high court had failed to take into account his state of mind after his wife’s death, which meant he battled to give evidence on how the cord was tied around his wife’s neck.
“The trial court’s reasoning that the appellant explained his inability to remember details, such as the cord around the deceased’s neck, as a result of shock and trauma, and to compare that with his evidence surrounding his arrest of which he could remember details, is to compare apples with pears,” Van Zyl said.
He added the court had failed to take into consideration that the blood found in Rohde’s bed and one of the pillows came from Susan’s toes, which were bleeding after she sustained an injury to her toes and eyebrow the day before.
He said the reason there was mascara on the pillow was possibly because she had not removed it before bed and not because her husband had pushed her face into the pillow as he smothered her, as suggested by the state witnesses.
Van Zyl further added the high court had failed to take into consideration that if he had indeed staged her killing, he would have had to handle the hair tool to stage the suicide, yet the only DNA found on the hair tool was that of his wife.
Rohde maintains his version that he never assaulted his wife and her broken ribs were sustained as he tried to conduct CPR.
The two pathologists who testified in Rohde’s defence had further told the trial court she had suffered a contusion to the right lung as the CPR was administered.
“The contusion would not have caused her to cough up and ingest blood. They gave cogent and compelling reasons for their views,” Van Zyl said.
On the urine and stool that was found on the bathroom floor, the defence submitted that this was where Susan Rohde had died during CPR.
He further stated that there were no scratches or carpet fibres on Susan’s body that could have suggested she was dragged to the bathroom after she had died.
Van Zyl concluded that by saying the high court erred in its findings that Susan Rohde was not suicidal the morning she was found dead.
Rohde remains out on bail.