Britain’s youngest double murderers provide psychological code for Henri van Breda’s motive, and vice versa [ANALYSIS]

Earlier this month, Judge Desai expressed reluctance during Henri van Breda’s sentencing hearing because of Henri’s youth. He was barely 20 years old at the time of the triple axe murders. He turned 20 in November. The murders happened the following January. He was almost a teenager when it happened. He’s a 23-year-old now. What are we to make of this argument?

Does age matter when it comes to mass murder?

We get some clarity on this issue from the brutal double murders by two 14-year-olds from Spalding, Lincolnshire, in Britain. Their horrific crime in April 2016 involved the murder of Kim’s mother and 13-year-old sister by Lucas, a boy to whom she’d expressed feelings of pique about her mother.

Without knowing much about the crime, to hear Kim’s confession, one could swear Lucas had “just” stabbed his mother and sister once each, and then smothered them to death [as if that wasn’t bad enough]. In other words, it was a fairly painless, innocent crime, and they didn’t inflict any more pain than necessary. That’s the impression conveyed through what is said and in the manner of how it is said. Zero emotion because there’s apparently nothing to be emotional about.

Speaking in a flat tone, Kim told the cops matter of factly that she was “okay with it” [it being the fact that her boyfriend had killed her mother and younger sibling].

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You have to hear Kim speaking to get the lack of emotion in her voice. Click on the YouTube video below, it opens at the moment Kim confesses to cops.

 

 

That volunteering of information is an ominous sign. “It wasn’t like it was torture, or anything…”  In other words, it was okay. Kim was okay with it. She didn’t do it, and Lucas didn’t do any harm. They did what they had to do. They killed Kim’s mother and sister and that’s it. No big deal.

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Lucas gives a similar flat unemotional account:

In the audio, Lucas confessed in a calm, undramatic voice and said: “I went into her mum’s room and stabbed her in the neck while she was asleep on her side and smothered her face with a pillow. And after I knew she had gone, I went into Katie’s room – which is the same room as Kim’s – and I thought I stabbed her, but… I thought I stabbed her, but I’m not a hundred per cent sure – it was, like, her on a mattress and then I smothered her face with a pillow too.”

He admits killing Elizabeth then admits he killed Katie because he thought she would call the police. Asked to confirm if that was the only reason, Lucas casually replied: “Pretty much.”

The audio of Lucas’ account, in a similar soft, matter-of-fact flat tone, can be heard at this link, scroll to the video at the bottom.

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So these are confessions. Is it the truth though?

I often say in true crime that not all liars are murderers, but all murderers are liars. No matter what Lucas and Kim told the police, there is such a thing as forensic and autopsy evidence. That tells a different story about what happened. There was blood on the walls, on the ceilings, everywhere. The mother and child weren’t quietly or carefully executed, it was a planned [premeditated] murder which both teenagers plotted together over several days, and what’s more, the murders were extremely gratuitous.

I was okay with it.

The murderers enjoyed themselves while committing their crimes. In other words, they’re sadists.

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I would argue that Henri van Breda is sadistic as well.

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The Mirror provides the following description of the crime scene:

They meticulously plotted the stabbings and agreed Markham should knock three times on a rear window, before climbing into the property through a bathroom window, opened by Edwards. Markham later went to the house but Edwards had fallen asleep so he was unable to get into the property, the court was told.

The next night, Edwards fell asleep again. But on April 13, Edwards heard three knocks on the window of the bedroom she shared with Katie at around midnight. She let Markham into the bathroom and he passed her a bag containing spare clothing and four knives, the court heard. The original murderous plan was said to have been for Markham to kill Elizabeth and for Edwards to stab Katie, it was said.

However, Markham offered to kill both victims after his girlfriend told him she did not want to kill her sister. The Crown Court heard how the teenage boy used a kitchen knife to stab the mum and daughter after attacking them as they slept.

Elizabeth was stabbed eight times – including five times in the hands as she desperately tried to defend herself. One of the two blows to her neck almost completely cut through her windpipe.

Fullscreen capture 20180624 080932It’s important to look at these kids to intuit the sort of behaviour Henri van Breda was doing not only before the crimes but after. It’s precisely because these criminals are so young that their motives are so difficult for adults to figure out. One has to think like a young person in order to fathom their reality, and the operative dynamic.

Teen killer Kim Edwards was the “driver” behind the meticulous murders of her own mum and little sister who were butchered in their beds, it can now be revealed. The schoolgirl, who claimed her mum “favoured” her sister, mapped out a detailed plan to stab the pair through their voice boxes to stifle their screams. She roped in Markham to carry out the “brutal executions” and later shared a bath with him so they could wash the blood off themselves, a court heard.

The evil couple, likened to Bonnie and Clyde during a trial, also watched four Twilight vampire films and had sex as they “revelled” after the double killing last April.

But even the reason – that the mother favoured the younger sibling – isn’t quite why the mother had to be gotten rid of. There are many families like that, where there’s sibling rivalry and teenagers fuming over impressions of favouritism. Anyone who thinks this crime occurred – in all its brutality – just because of run-of-the-mill rivalries doesn’t understand true crime psychology. So what was it? What really triggered the crime:

On April 9, Edwards barricaded herself into Markham’s room with him after her mum told her she would turn out like her absent dad – described in court as a drug addict. They only left the room at 2pm the next day, when they climbed out of a window. On April 11, the pair then had a conversation in the back garden of the Edwards’ family home, during which they agreed to kill Elizabeth and Katie.

On April 13th, Kim’s mother Elizabeth and Katie were murdered.

What happened after the murder? The couple got to do what they wanted to be able to do, and had been limited in doing. Screwing, watching movies for as long as they liked, and perhaps shooting themselves up with drugs.

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According to the Independent:

Over the course of the next 36 hours the besotted teenagers, then both 14, had sex, shared a bath and watched Twilight vampire films before police arrived.

The exact same scenario of inappropriate emotion haunts the Van Breda case. There’s also the contention that because of the mixed blood traces in the shower, Henri washed the waterfall of his family’s blood off his body, then calmly smoked cigarettes without anyone to tell him not to.

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Consider Kim Edwards’ words:

I was okay with it…it gave me peace of mind.

This was Kim’s feeling after the crime. Basically I’m glad I did it, I don’t have to be so anxious now…

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Just as these young teenagers didn’t show any emotion whatsoever, Henri was flat and emotionless when he called emergency services, he was flat and emotionless throughout the trial, and he was flat and emotionless when he was found guilty on all charges and sentences to life. It’s the same zombie-affect throughout.

 

In the case of the Twilight Killers, the motive is really entitlement. I want to be with my boyfriend [both their families were against their relationship, they’d run away together before], I want to be allowed to do what I want to do.

The jealousy over the sibling is a factor, and the parent’s preferential treatment of the other sibling feels unfair, but it’s a smokescreen to the much uglier thing that hangs over the crime.

Of course the hidden thing is the thing that removed the inhibition to commit murder, the thing that makes one laugh and celebrate the slaughter of someone else, as if it’s part of a fun day. That hidden thing is drugs.

The drugs aren’t the reason for the crime, but they set the underlying psychology that is already there [whether in one individual, or shared by two] into motion.

Lucas and Kim were both sentenced to life imprisonment, which in Britain is 20 years. When they appealed their sentences, arguing their youth as a mitigating factor, the sentences were commuted from 20 years to 17.5 years. The Judge, in pronouncing sentence, nevertheless remarked:

“When committing the murder, he had a sense of calmness and happiness…”

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The #1 Reason Why Susan Rohde DIDN’T Kill Herself

Jason Rohde’s defence has two explicit goals: firstly to make the case that Susan was suicidal, and secondly, to cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s theory of events.

If we invert the defence case and pretend Van der Spuy is the prosecutor, and Susan’s ghost is on the stand accused of murdering her self, could Van der Spuy get a conviction based on Jason’s and Dr Peter’s testimony [assuming the latter was admissible]?

In true crime, God and the devil are in the details. But often, especially in fairly simple cases like this one, the court gets sucked into the forest, and once deep within the verges of the treeline, we no longer see the wood for the trees. Once we hover outward and upward, like I drone, higher and higher, what do the woods reveal that ultimately decides this case on way or the other?

It’s quite simple. The vast majority of people who commit suicide suffer from depression. The number is about 2/3rds. That ought to be enough, but allow me to sharpen the details of the depression forest, and how it ties into a genuine suicide scenario.

  1. More than 66% of people who succeed in killing themselves have severe depression at the time of their deaths.
  2. One out of every 16 people [6.25%] diagnosed with depression, go on to kill themselves.
  3. People with major depression are 20 times more likely to kill themselves than the general population. 20 times more likely it’s twice, or three times or fives times more likely. 20 times more likely is a LOT more likely, like saying you’re more likely to die of a car accident near a road than away from one.
  4. Those who have had multiple battles with depression are at a greater risk.
  5. Depression and drug addiction of any kind raise the odds of suicide even further.

In order to make the psychological case for Susan committing suicide, we need proof that she had depression. Not that she was depressed. Depression. Depression is a totally different ball game to a temporary mood swing. A depressed person can feel better when circumstances change, someone in a depression is stuck and can’t fix, ameliorate or escape their malaise, no matter what they do.

The University of California provides the following colloquial definition of depression:

Everyone feels down at times. The breakup of a relationship or a bad grade can lead to low mood. Sometimes sadness comes on for no apparent reason. Is there any difference between these shifting moods and what is called depression? Anyone who has experienced an episode of depression would probably answer yes. Depression, versus ordinary unhappiness, is characterized by longer and deeper feelings of despondency and the presence of certain characteristic symptoms (see below). This distinction is important, because in severe cases, depression can be life threatening, with suicide as a possible outcome. Depressed people may also fail to live up to their potential, doing poorly in school and staying on the social margins. Depression is frequently ignored or untreated; the condition often prevents people from taking steps to help themselves. This is unfortunate, as effective help is available.

I realise the above definition isn’t very scientific, but it’s adequate for our purposes. There is a huge difference between feeling depressed and depression. Someone suffering from depression may clearly feel depressed, going through different coils of darkness and mental misery. Although a depressed person can become someone who suffers from depression, being depressed isn’t the same thing as depression.

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In 1929, the Great Depression [economic depression mind you] struck America and the world. People didn’t commit suicide immediately, in 1929, following the stock market crash. It took a few years for the economic depression to addle the mind – men lost their jobs, felt crap, fought with their wives, felt crap, lost their homes, and then once the depression set in and became severe hopelessness, that’s when tens of thousands of Americans elected to kill themselves. Suicide fever peaked in America in 1932, 3 years after the crash, at 23 000. The rest of the world also showed a similar rising tide.

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It’s a like comparing a cough or a sniffle to having the flu. It might become the flu, or it might now. When you begin to have symptoms of a cough, that’s different from actually having the influenza and being bedridden, completely taken over by the symptoms. Clearly there is a link between the cough and the flu, and someone with flu may cough.

What we want to know is where along the spectrum was Susan. Depressed, or suffering from depression? Coughing, nose running, feeling tired, or head aching, fever and a full-on debilitating mental flu that overcomes the whole body – mind, energy, motivation etc.

The above quote suggests that depression involves “long and deep feelings of despondency.” Did Susan have long and deep feelings of despondency? Clearly, she did. So clearly she had depression, didn’t she?

I don’t think Susan had depression, though she had good reasons to feel depressed and despondent. There is subtlety in the idea of “long feelings of despondency”. What that means is these feelings persist, they endure for a long period of time and eventually these anxieties begin to swarm and chew away at one’s resilience, gnawing away at one’s spirit, one’s esteem, one’s identity and one’s natural state of bliss.

Depression is difficult to beat precisely when the message of the depression is self-evident. It’s difficult to bullshit depression. Depression has a good reason for being there, and is an urgent message to the Life Force saying “please stop doing this to me, you’re killing me by continuing to go down this path…”

In order to disprove Jason Rohde’s version that Susan was suicidal, we have to know how depression works, we have to understand the psychological mechanism, we have to know ourselves and the circumstances of the case. Once again, we can appreciate all of this from the perspective of the drone hovering over the woods, rather than getting lost in the trees. What we want to know is how severe was Susan’s malaise? Was it very severe, severe, or severe but okay? What is the extent of her woods, the woods of her depression? Does it cover endless hillsides, or is a forest in a particular area? Is it a tall forest, a thick forest or an overgrown copse here and there needing to be tended to?

If Susan’s depression was severe she wouldn’t be able to face a fucking convention. She wouldn’t be able to travel. She would be on social margins, not drifting through them, flirting, dancing and confronting. If Susan’s depression was severe, she may have reached the stage where she’d begun to neglect herself and no longer seek treatment. Or she might become addicted to her medications. None of these things were happening with Susan. Depression makes a person unable to seek help for themselves, and yet we see Susan was talking to her psychologist while she was at the convention!

One strong argument the defence was able to introduce was that Susan sought help after attending a talk on depression and suicide. Does that mean Susan was depressed and suicidal?

Clearly, it means it could. But using the same cough-flu analogy, calling the doctor [a doctor who specialises in treating influenza] when you have a sniffle doesn’t necessarily mean you have the flu, although it could. It’s a great argument to introduce doubt, but it doesn’t make the argument that Susan had depression. There’s no argument that Jason’s affair depressed or, or that it was extremely depression, especially that weekend. The argument is, could a depressing moment cause a distressed woman to suddenly commit suicide. Again, this is like saying, can a cough lead to flu. It can.

The fact is, the suicide narrative doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The other side of the equation is Jason. When we add that aspect to the narrative, still using the flu analogy, then what we have is this: could someone with a cough get the flu, or did she already have the flu when she was in a room filled with people with the flu. The answer to that isn’t that Susan was suicidal, but that the flu that inflected her came from someone in her environment.

From the same University of California source we get these signs of depression:

  • Loss of pleasure in virtually all activities
  • Feelings of fatigue or lack of energy
  • Frequent tearfulness
  • Difficulty with concentration or memory
  • A change in sleep pattern, with either too much or too little sleep; the person may wake up in the night or early morning and not feel rested the next day
  • An increase or decrease in appetite, with a corresponding change in weight
  • Markedly diminished interest in sex
  • Feelings of worthlessness and self-blame or exaggerated feelings of guilt
  • Unrealistic ideas and worries (e.g., believing no one like them or that they have a terminal illness when there is no supporting proof)
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Thoughts of suicide

Susan in some way or another suffered from all of these signs, but let’s face it, many of us do too. You can feel hopeless thoughts [for example about the future of South Africa, or at the prospect of going to work after a weekend, or when Elton Jantjies comes onto the field] without necessarily feeling depressed whatsoever. Having feelings of fatigue or lack of energy may be completely normal after a long day at work. It may have nothing to do with being depressed. A change in sleep pattern doesn’t make one feel happier, but may have to do with issues besides being depressed.

In other words, those signs of depression are almost worthless except to say in SEVERELY depressed people, many of these symptoms are not only present, but severely and permanently present. One could say some of these symptoms individually could become life threatening, such as weight loss, or sleep deprivation. In one area above all, Susan did have severe problems, and that was with sleep deprivation.

Overall, Susan had many of the symptoms and Jason knew she did. Wasn’t he counting on the evidence to work in his favour, assuming that Susan was depressed enough to reasonably make a case for a suicically depressed person [someone with depression]?

In sum then, this case is about whether we’re able to discern the difference between actual depression and something else that’s a few trees but not quite a wood. Can we tell the difference?

When you examine the #Rohde “depression” thread on Twitter there are a few indicators that Susan either was on the cusp of developing severe [suicidal] depression, or had just begun to develop it. That may work for the accused’s case, but even someone who has just developed depression isn’t necessarily at risk of suicide. It’s like saying just at the moment the flu hits you, do you take sick leave, jump into bed and shut out the world? Typically there is a period of resistance and denial, of fighting back, especially in the initial stages of the more severe malaise.

The fact that Susan was receiving treatment actively, right to the time of her death, clearly shows she wanted to beat the thing. Compare that to someone infected with deadly bird flu – H5N1 – who is so compromised they can’t gurgle to a doctor for help because they’re already in the process of dying.

The difficulty for the Judge is that there is a niggly sense that there just possibly is an argument [not in terms of the evidence, but in terms of the psychology] for Susan being depressed and having depression.

I would argue that that niggly sense isn’t enough. It’s unconvincing. It’s a clear cough, but it’s not becoming the flu, not until that cough is a lot worse. The irony is that incredible as it sounds, there is more evidence Jason was severely depressed than that Susan was.

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We’ve already seen. however, that Judge Salie-Hlophe didn’t fall for these shenanigans, which portends well for her not falling for the suicide narrative.

It must be said, if Jason Rohde did have severe depression in February this year, he made a full recovery within weeks, perhaps even days. There’s no sign of that depression now, if it was ever genuine to begin with, and there was none when he was on the stand in late May [just two months later] either.

Now, real depression doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t turn on like a switch, just as one doesn’t just suddenly get the flu. It doesn’t turn off quickly either, just as flu doesn’t disappear quickly. It’s a process.

The expert psychiatrist who’s entire narrative was thrown out diagnosed Susan with major depression. Again, I’m not sure if Susan could go from being depressed before the weekend to MAJOR DEPRESSION over the course of three days, or one particular evening, at Spier. In Jason’s version, Susan effectively went from depressed to MAJOR DEPRESSION between 03:00 and 07:00/08:00 on July 24th.

In order for depression to wear you down and make you suicidal, it needs time to infest and body and mind. It needs to push out the vital aspects, and spread its spiderwebs of malaise. Susan’s risk of suicide was higher, but so is anyone’s immediate after a break-up.

In the end, the #1 reason Susan didn’t have depression, let alone severe depression, at the time of her death is laughably obvious. If she had depression she would have been using anti-depressants. I had my ears pricked for that one word throughout the testimony. I was gratified when Dr. Peter listed the many medications Susan was on. Anti-anxiety this, sleep-remedy that, this and that but absolutely no anti-depressants.

You’d think someone with depression, and someone receiving treatment from it actively, and especially someone with MAJOR depression would be on the most obvious depression-related medication. Antidepressants. But she wasn’t. Why wasn’t she? Antidepressants don’t make you happier, they make you less sad. In some way they aggravate the original symptoms, such as loss of energy and fatigue. Susan was a fit and healthy woman. She wouldn’t want to mess up either her libido or her fitness by choking her body with toxic mind benders. Antidepressants are in that field of medication, just like flu medications, that can actually alter your mood, actually make you feel sick if you took them when you were healthy to begin with.

In the end, what we want to know is what Susan’s ghost would say on the stand if she could speak. If Van der Spuy asked her if she murdered herself, if she was suicidal, if had depression, the simplest response to dispel all this is one we already know. Susan herself didn’t think she had depression, and neither did her psychologist, otherwise she would have been on anti-depressants. She wasn’t. Susan Rohde didn’t kill herself.

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The Rebecca Zahau case is a fascinating parallel to the Rohde case, and vice versa. My book on Zahau, the definitive book on this famous American case which also involved the death of a six-year-old boy, is available at this link.

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Bloodline: The Epic Behind the Epic [Part 2]

Writing the opening to an original epic is hard. Anything that’s original, a unique product that’s uniquely your world is shit hard to bring into the world. It’s an art to get the pieces to fit and work together.

Once the original idea has become concrete and the juices are flowing, getting the first words on the page is the next step.

The trick is to transfer those sparkling eddies in the mind into compelling prose without losing the magic. Getting the beginning right paves the way for everything that follows.

In a way, the first words and paragraph are foundational to a narrative. Everything else is built on them. One wrong word and an entire franchise that could have been, that should have been, goes up in smoke.

In the unlikely event you do hit all the right notes right off the bat, well then you may go on to craft the next Harry Potter.

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Blockbuster movies are faced with the same perils. How to get the optics just right, to set strong written narrative to motion picture that works.

So how do you get your epic to the perfect start?

This is my story, and it’s not necessarily about how to write the perfect opening as much as its about what goes into it. Like all art, mastery comes with time. You feel your way there after a lot of trial and error…

In 1987, every single day I would arrive at school with a fresh draft of the first chapter [rewritten], and in the first minutes before class, I’d hand it over to my best friend [the smartest kid in the class] for his assessment. And every time he’d say: “It’s good.” “Really good or just good?” “It’s really good.” “Is there anything you think I could improve.” “I’m not sure if you need to be so descriptive about pine-needles…”

I was never satisfied. I wanted it to be a lot better than good, so I’d go back and fine-tune. This went on every day for weeks, then months. When Alan finally said the opening was great, or perfect, I felt I’d pressured him into getting that response. I wanted to blow his socks off, not just write something that was good.

Over a long period I settled on a scenario. For the sake of authenticity, I wanted to anchor the setting in history. I found something like this at the local library [there was no internet or Wikipedia in those days]:

Saint Marcellus’ flood or Grote Mandrenke (Low Saxon/ɣroːtə mandrɛŋkə/; “Great Drowning of Men”)[1] was a massive southwesterly Atlantic gale (also known as a European windstorm) which swept across the British Isles, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark (including Schleswig/Southern Jutland) around 16 January 1362, causing at minimum 25,000 deaths.[1] The storm tide is also called the “Second St. Marcellus flood” because it peaked 17 January, the feast day of St. Marcellus. A previous “First St. Marcellus flood” drowned 36,000 people along the coasts of West Friesland and Groningen on 16 January 1219.

An immense storm tide of the North Sea swept far inland from England and the Netherlands to Denmark and the German coast, breaking up islands, making parts of the mainland into islands, and wiping out entire towns and districts, such as Rungholt, said to have been located on the island of Strand in North FrisiaRavenser Odd in East Yorkshire and the harbour of Dunwich.[2]

This storm tide, along with others of like size in the 13th century and 14th century, played a part in the formation of the Zuiderzee,[1] and was characteristic of the unsettled and changeable weather in northern Europe at the beginning of the Little Ice Age.

I was fascinated at the prospect of a modern civilisation experiencing the most extreme weather event possible on this planet: an Ice Age. Epic! What would that be like? What would it feel like? How would or wouldn’t technology cope? Would electricity still work when everything iced over? What would generate electricity? Would there even be electricity, or the internet, or TV? Imagine if there wasn’t.

I decided to set my first opening in the 8th century mainly because that was the beginning of Viking seafaring. The first written account of a Viking raid carried out on the abbey of Lindisfarne in northern England took place in 793.

Alan loved it the schema, but it still wasn’t perfect. Every word had to be placed right, it had to be lyrical and powerful. The sentences had to lock into one another so they formed a train that got up to speed quickly and evocatively. It also had to move you in a visceral sense. There were also other huge unknowns to deal with – characters, dialogue, knowing how much or how little description to use to paint each scene.

Once I had the symbolism set out, and the main body of what I wanted to say in place, I had to fiddle with small things; the narrative hairstyle, the footwear and clothing in the 8th century,  ship and house design, basically the colour of the narrative shoelaces and how to tie them.

Eventually the changes were so small, Alan started asking: “This is exactly the same thing you showed me yesterday.” And I’d say: “It’s not, I changed a comma in the second sentence, and replaced “fizzled” with “dissolved.” “Also there were no sandwiches or collared shirts in the 8th century.”

I still remember now the opening I agonised over. I wanted the story to start off with a bang or a deafening screech, the loudest and biggest opening I could think of.

It went something like this:

A thousand Boeing 747’s touch down, out of time, onto a field in late 8th century Germany. The roar turns pine-needles to mush, the throat of the throbbing vortex of wind burns bright red as it vacuums all but one of our furry-clad great grandfathers from the northern seaside escarpment.

The entire village of Sleswig [Sleswick in the common tongue] explodes into splinters and ash. Housecats fly through the ether trailing racing-car miaws, pots spin into clattering frisbees, fiery hearths become flakes of inverted snow. The cremated community funnels through the screaming, smoking chimney; the maw gulps mountainsides, carves coastlines, and scrapes riverbeds into new shapes and configurations.

Brooks explode into shrieks of mist, ploughed Earth raked into seas of stinging sandblast. Inside this planet-altering holocaust, only the lanky figure of Heyerdahl, who’s out on the farm that day  finds his feet in the chaos.

Out of all the Sleswiggians, it’s only his toes that find just enough purchase in the dirt to propel him along Lady Luck’s razor edge. Every slip on this hellish Thursday afternoon means his head dodges a javelin branch just in time, every stumble ducks through yet another toppling avalanche of hills or trees. 

Through the cannonball gale, over liquidised leaves, under flying fenceposts, he scurries towards his children. He’s somewhere inside the stinging murk, a blurry figure, part racing legs, part windblown.

Then, somewhere in the maelstrom Heyerdahl’s grey-green eyes close in unconsciousness. A tendril of the storm lifts him into cartwheeling algorithms of survival. 

Somehow he’s blown onto a boat, the boat pushed far from shore, sailing a course set by the fates.  And so, the next morning, or whenever it was when day reappeared, Heyerdahl comes to flickering consciousness. His pale cheeks are sandpapered and scratched, his forehead bruised and burned, his wrists chafed and raw, his bare feet filled with splinters when he finds himself at sea. His long hair is green and brown with plant sap and soil.

His boat is blown clear across the Atlantic, and so when he arrives unheralded on the American coast, his skiff smashed to splinters on the booming reef, he becomes the first European to do so. He is the last of kin on the edge of the world. He steps off the strand, determined to find his way home following the coast.

He heads north, thinking he’s still in the Old World on the German coast. If Heyerdahl fails to find his way home, to a home that no longer exists, or fails to survive this perilous leg back to the Old World, you and I will never exist. And so, across time and space, we must sit on his shoulder and cheer him on, so that whoever he may be, may be, and so that one day, so will we…

 You can see how ambitious it all was, right? And there was plenty of room for improvement, to add something not thought of, to subtract something that was overstated or repeated, not so? Of course, this version’s not exactly how it was written because I lost the original manuscript, twice.

In the next part I’ll deal with how that happened, and the process of resurrecting the DNA of the story after a long period of hibernation and mourning.

I should probably add that this opening that I spent months perfecting, agonising over, doing literally hundreds of rewrites and subjecting poor Alan to each morning at school, never made it into the actual narrative.

About thirty years later when I rewrote the epic, I found myself back at the ranch in terms of wanting the best possible initiating chapter. The set-up was all important to tell the reader: this is something new and bigger and totally EPIC. But how to execute not just a Big Wow Beginning, but The Biggest Wow Beginning That’s Possible To Conceive.

George Lucas was faced with the same dilemma in Star Wars, and solved cleverly [or clumsily] with the famous yellow scrawl and John Williams’ amazing score.

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I wanted the same majestic opening, the sound of trumpets, the text burning the page like yellow scrawl rising over a darkened cinema audience.

In Bloodline Murmurs of Earth although the original start written three score and two years earlier isn’t there, the echoes of those early scribbles are. The scenario I ended up going with is completely different, but the idea of racing legs, flapping furs, pine trees and loud noises is still there. Does the opening work?

Read Bloodline Murmurs of Earth at this link.

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Rohde Trial: The Art of Strategic Cross-Examination

Today on the Winter Solstice, the longest day of the year, Dr Reggie Perumal’s interminable time on the stand came to an end. I personally sat in on the state pathologist’s testimony on October 12, an experience that shook me. I sat in again on some of Perumal’s testimony-in-chief, such as it was, in the first week of June 2018.

I must admit, I found the epilogue of Perumal’s testimony-in-chief mindnumbingly dull, and actually left court a few minutes before the adjournment to make a few important calls.

The prosecutor also took a timeout in his cross-examination of Perumal, allowing the defence to field another expert witness, Dr. Peter, whose evidence was subsequently thrown out by the defence. This caused the defence to lose a lot of momentum, and allowed the prosecutor to catch up.  It meant the prosecutor could focus all his time analyzing one Mount Everest of information instead of having to wage an assault on two simultaneously.

It’s easy to miss, but Louis van Niekerk is working on his own, effectively, he has no legally qualified sidekick to delegate his work to as Galloway did, whereas Van der Spuy has at least one other lawyer – Tony Mostert – to assist him.

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Van Niekerk, I’m assuming, also has other cases to attend to. If Van Niekerk doesn’t have other legal counsel to rely on, it doesn’t mean he’s not getting any assistance. My fellow  true-crime author Thomas Mollett has been in court actively providing valuable if anonymous support and insight, listening in on the evidence, taking notes and studying the autopsy evidence. Thomas hasn’t attended every day of the trial [neither have I], but I’m pretty sure he’s been at Van Nieker’s right hand on all of the day’s the pathology evidence was fielded [by both pathologists].

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The exit of Dr. Peter was a mercy; a stroke of good luck to the prosecution, but that still left him with a mountain to climb. Where to start? Where to stop?

In retrospect, we can see there was a pattern, a strategy to Van Niekerk’s cross-examination.  He would examine a tranche of evidence, and then dip into Perumal’s CV, causing him to be a little more circumspect in his criticisms of Khan. Then he’d deal with another aspect of autopsy evidence, not speculatively but by having photos showing what was being put to him [and to the court], and then Perumal would have to make a reasonable comment about it. And then Van Niekerk would hit him with something else from his portfolio of cases.

To be honest, I didn’t like the stop-start quality of the interrogation, it felt messy at times, but court isn’t about entertainment value; if you’re a prosecutor, it’s about getting an witness to concede on as many issues as you can. And Perumal did. Getting a hired gun to concede on anything ought to be like pulling teeth. If you search the #Rohde “Perumal concedes” and #Rohde “Perumal agrees” hashtag-search-term combination, there’s precious little there. And yet Perumal did concede.

I was gobsmacked at just how often and on the crucial evidence Perumal conceded. Van Niekerk vs Perumal was at times like watching someone take candy from a baby. To recap, Perumal conceded that:

  1. He couldn’t be certain about Susan’s cause of death. 
  2. He admitted the noose was loose, contradicting his client.
  3. He admitted the possibility that Susan’s body was dragged into the bathroom.

How did he do it?

Van Niekerk’s beside manner, if that’s the right expression, meant he was firm, but didn’t antagonise the witness unduly. Cross-examination is a dance. Neither party likes what the other party is doing, they have different agendas, so both try to make little concessions to make one another’s life easier. The expert can be a little more yielding [“not dogmatic”] on his opinions, and the prosecutor can go easier on him where he contradicts himself, or on issues of his credibility. Like this one:

And this one:

Van Niekerk left these gut punches for the very end, just as he only accused Rohde of lying right at the end of his testimony.

Van Niekerk could have drilled Perumal very hard on this, and yet he simply brought it up, let Perumal comment, then moved on. What was he doing? I think it was a shot over the bow, firstly to soften the pathologist, and also to inform [or warn] the court that things spoken weren’t always necessarily quite what they seemed.

The other thing to bear in mind, and in this area Gerrie Nel made an error, is the personality of the Judge. A certain style of confronting a witness may aggravate a Judge, and in the Rohde case, the Judge does seem to prefer a gentler approach. The same came be said for Judge Desai. Although he’s affable, he can be quite strict, and prefers a gentle tone from his court. It’s important for prosecutors [and defence advocates] to abide by the tone and timbre of the court, if they wish to be given a little extra legroom. We can see Van der Spuy has gradually been loosing this contest, while Van Niekerk has advanced into her good graces.

Still, whether Van Niekerk punched the concession out of him, or took it like candy from a baby, Perumal conceding that the noose was loose is a huge breakthrough for the state. It directly contradicts Rohde’s version on a crucial aspect of the case.

I don’t want to blow up the cross-examination too much. If anything, Perumal left a lot of residual doubt, and that’s actually his job. Not to provide certainty, but to provide expert testimony about how uncertain everything is. So his concession that Susan’s time of death is uncertain is not really something to crow about, is it? Admitting that there are many possibilities doesn’t necessary amount to a concession, but to a broad reinforcement of the uncertainty surrounding aspects of evidence.

To Perumal’s credit, he wasn’t hired to testify in the Pistorius case because it was thought his post mortem findings supported the state’s case.  There may have been another reason as well. Perumal may have felt walking a tightrope as a hired gun [if that’s what he is] was too risky under the lazer-scrutiny of the media in such a high-profile case. Perhaps that’s why he dodged the Van Breda trial as well. In the Rohde case, he was committed, and the media attention [via the livefeed] came along just before his testimony. Then it was too late to duck, assuming he wanted to.

In my view, it’s important that courtroom players see value in the court narrative. That’s what it is. It’s important to start and end well, and Van Niekerk did in his cross-examination.

I know what you’re thinking. As a professional narrator I would say that. But think about it like this: if you’re scoring a lot of little hits but boring your audience to tears, a lot of those hits miss the mark simply because your audience has tuned out. That’s what happened in the Pistorius trial. As Gerrie Nel pontificated endlessly about the duvet being on or under a pair of jeans, and electric cords here or there, pundits wondered then whether the Judge was a Sleeping Giant, or sleeping through some of the mind-numbing minutiae. We know how that turned out.

In the O.J. Simpson case, the DNA evidence went over the jury’s heads. The mountain of evidence was all valid, and devastating to the defence, but the jury weren’t scientists, and ultimately for them it was much ado about nothing.

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Arguably the defence lawyer is also playing to his client, satisfying the man paying the bills that his case is being fielded in a compelling fashion [even when it seems dubious and indefensible right off the bat to everyone else].

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For a long time during the Oscar Pistorius trial, Barry Roux seemed to be showing up to build a house of cards. It seemed to be more about the appearance of a defence than an actual defence. That’s what it felt like for me, but it wasn’t like that for everyone. Many people were drawn in by his defence, many people were ultimately fooled, including the Judge. Ultimately, Pistorius’s defence – the way he explained it to the TV cameras, and how it devolved in court – was just that, the appearance of a defence. The imaginary burglar was an apparition Oscar expected us to accept because he was Oscar. Appearances cannot survive the test of scrutiny, and credibility is true crime’s core value.

Test an appearance for long enough, cross-examine in sufficient detail, and a charade crumbles to dust. A liar’s greatest trick is counting on the deceived’s lack of attention. A murderer relies on lack of attention even more, but also uses tricks like staging, covering up, play acting and deception to make his schema stick. When everyone is watching, the game is revealed. I think that’s starting to happen now in this trial.

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Rohde Trial: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is Character Assassinating Who? [WATCH]

Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe found time on Wednesday, June 20th to sentence another scumbag who strangled his pregnant girlfriend, 28-year-old Nicola Pienaar, and stole her mother’s car.

Like Rohde, Oosthuizen inverted the abuse narrative, saying that it was his girlfriend who assaulted him, not the other way round:

He said Pienaar was possessive and had, on several occasions, been aggressive towards him and assaulted him. He was embarrassed to report the assaults because as a man it was unusual to report being assaulted by a woman, he told the court. He said he was never violent towards Pienaar but “she was violent to me”. The couple regularly used cocaine, tik, Mandrax and dagga. Oosthuizen further told the court the relationship was dysfunctional, with Pienaar often showing up at his home uninvited and showing signs of being a stalker.

On the night of the incident, the couple had been using drugs and Pienaar attacked Oosthuizen with a knife. “My life was in danger,” he said.

Jacobus Oosthuizen entered the court dressed like a gangster, wearing a back-to-front baseball cap which he removed when he entered the dock and Hlophe read his sentence.

Like Henri van Breda, Oosthuizen took the 22 prison sentence “like a man”, showing no emotion, and also not electing to say anything to the family who were also in the court. As soon as a judge announces a verdict the legal status of a person changes. If they’re found guilty, their characters are officially “assassinated” to use a term that came up today. From then on the media may refer to an “alleged” murderer, for example, as a convicted murderer.

True crime is all about character assassination. Someone is either innocent or guilty. In order for a guilty person to have a chance of escaping punishment, someone else must be the bad guy. Sometimes it’s the victim, often it’s the police.

The lack of emotion in such an emotional scenario – especially sentencing –  says a lot about the transactional inversion that characterise crime and justice in courtrooms around the world. The loss of a life must be paid for in some way. We tend to miss the inversion in the psychology of the criminal during this very public accounting process. During the commission of crimes, criminals are extremely agitated about something, and often, so are their victims. In court they are the polar opposites of their true selves, and they tend to give reasonable explanations for the events surrounding dead people – it was a day just like any other day, nothing unusual. That’s usually not the case.

Oosthuizen arriving looking like a gangster [but not sounding like one] was surprising, especially after weeks and months of seeing Van Bred and Rohde dressed in suits to express their supposed decency.

It’s also important to remember that while defence advocates can be employed full-time in the service of their clients, especially top advocates, judges and prosecutors have a roster of cases to go through. The concentrate on one case during a day, then have to cycle through other cases. Many journalists have the same issue as they jump continuously from one story to the next.

The advantage in writing about true crime full-time is that you get to marinade in a case, and that’s when the small, spicy details emerge. If it takes time and effort to hide these details, to think up clever little stories to bury the truth, then it takes time and effort to reveal them. As soon as one catches onto a thread, the fabric of deception quickly unravels, as do the patterns embedded in the deception. And the more time you spend in true crime, and better one becomes at picking up threads.

It’s often the job of defence experts to spin educated sounding yarns that play into the defence case. The expert-moniker, in this case of the expert pathologist, gives the defence case credibility. But is it credible?

Even before Perumal took the stand there were whispers inside and outside the Western Cape High Court that Perumal was a hired gun. I heard the same thing said about him during the Van Breda trial.

During Louis van Niekerk’s cross-examination of Perumal, credibility issues had to come up, and it was only a matter of time before Van der Spuy blew up about it. The run up to this moment was reported on by Times Live:

Van Niekerk asked Perumal if Judge Siraj Desai‚ in the Van Breda trial‚ accepted his six-page comment for the defence. The expert said it was accepted‚ according his understanding.

 

But Van Niekerk referred him to Desai’s 300-page judgment and said: “I want to differ with that.” Van Niekerk undertook to provide Perumal with the voluminous judgment before cross-examining him after an objection from Rohde’s counsel‚ Graham van der Spuy.

Van der Spuy said it would be unfair to question Perumal on a document he had not yet read. “I haven’t had sight of this judgment. I have a problem with the witness being cross-examined when I haven’t had sight of [it]‚” said Van der Spuy.

Then Van Niekerk took another swing. In the livefeed one can see Dr. Perumal starting to dance in the dock, literally moving forwards and backwards, and at times avoiding eye contact with the prosecutor. When Van Niekerk actually had the gumption to say the words “place any value” on Perumal’s work, Van der Spuy couldn’t take it any more.

It’s a moment well-worth watching.

The video below kicks off just after 42 minutes of Perumal’s second day of cross examination. This moment was one of the most heated exchanges of the trial, and plenty was riding on the outcome.

VAN NIEKERK: The point is…um…as I understand it, you were made available to defence, but the defence never called you. 

PERUMAL: That’s correct.

VAN NIEKERK: So again, we can’t have any value on-on your involvement, it was no adjudicated by any…

PERUMAL: Well, that’s true I didn’t testify-

VAN DER SPUY [Interrupting]: My Lady, I have a difficulty with this. I dunno if this is some attempt at some form of character assasination. Um…the witness gave details of his experience, and the cases in which he was involved when he was presenting his CV. What is my learned friend trying to achieve by this? When I was cross-examining Dr. Steenkamp, the court stopped me…from investigating her conduct…in this particular matter…with regard to Mrs Rohde…in terms of professional norms and standards. The court stopped me from cross-examining her on that. Yes he’s [glances over to Van Nierkerk] Carte Blanche…to try and…take this man’s character. What is he achieving by all of this?

JUDGE: …the court found…[you] were harassing her… With this respect, I don’t perceive it as character assassination of the expert…

VAN DER SPUY [Sounding grouchy]: So is the court ruling that this may continue? May I just like to get that on record.

JUDGE: I would like to hear to what extent the state wishes to clarify what is set out in the CV of Dr. Perumal. I will decide from that [Van der Spuy interrupts] how to value his involvement, or the extent of his involvement.

VAN DER SPUY: My Lady, my I address the court on the aspect of Dr. Steenkamp?

JUDGE: No, not now. Thank you, proceed. 

VAN DER SPUY: Is the court refusing to let me address it on the-

JUDGE [Raising her hand]: Not now.

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Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe allowed the cross-examination to continue, and it will continue tomorrow on two even more high-profile cases [Van Breda and Pistorius]. Things are likely to get very animated on the questions surrounding those cases.

Irrespective of Van der Spuy’s feelings towards his expert, it’s a little tricksy from the defense to be invoking character assassination, isn’t it? Isn’t that precisely what they have been systematically doing to Susan Rohde? Isn’t that why Dr Peter’s was scrubbed by the court as an expert witness?

It’s important to note that if Susan was distressed about her marriage, that’s one thing, but to inflate that and convert that into suicide, especially if it wasn’t a suicide, it’s a particularly cruel kind of character assassination, especially by or on behalf of a former spouse and/or his defence team.

But this question also lies at the heart of the legal case. If the prosecutor manages to shoot down the expert pathologist, then the suicide narrative disappears, and Jason Rohde will likely face a conviction on the murder charge. If the defence sets up a strong enough assassination of Susan’s character as a depressed, suicidal, overwrought victim, then the suicide narrative triumphs, and Rohde will be found not guilty.

The point is, on a charge of murder, someone has to lose their innocence. Who’s it going to be?

Rohde Trial: Can a body bruise after it has died, even one prone to bruising?

One of the limits about writing about a case that’s sub judice is that we’re limited in what we the public have access to, what we can see. In order to examine the case in terms of the bruising around Susan’s neck, the logical place to start is by examining the photos of those bruises.

I’ve seen Khan’s in court, and I’ve seen some of Perumal’s photos. Unfortunately I can’t reproduce them here while the case is underway. As such I’m a little reluctant to pontificate about bruises without being able to show them.

What I can do is shed a little light on the pathology of bruises, and expose an important problem in this area, regarding Rohde’s version of events.

The image below shows a model that Dr. Perumal used to demonstrate Susan’s ligature strangulation. A ligature isn’t a bruise, a ligature [such as a rope or cord] causes a bruise. A ligature may point to the cause of death [ligature strangulation, asphyxiation] and thus reveal the manner of death [homocide, suicide etc].

The photographs I saw didn’t show a clear line like the one coloured in koki over the mannequin’s neck.

In a genuine hanging, we’d expect the ligature to ride right up against the jaw and the throat in the front and sides and the cervical vertebrae at the rear.

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In genuine hangings the u-shaped hyoid bone is often undamaged precisely because the ligature constricts the tissue above it. The hyoid bone is the bone floating in the centre of the throat, just above the adam’s apple. In Perumal’s koki sketch, he appears to have the ligature more or less over the hyoid bone.

When someone is strangled, the hyoid bones is typically injured. Unlike a ligature which cuts off air and blood flow high up on the neck and throat, when human hands or a second person uses a ligature to strangle their victim, it tends to exert force on the middle section of the throat. I’m surprised the state prosecutor hasn’t brought up this important artefact with Perumal yet.

imagesIn this case we’re sure about the cause of death [asphixia], but we still have two hypotheses competing for the manner of death. Either Susan strangled herself, or her husband strangled her. It’s important to remind ourselves that even suicide involves the same scenario as murder – there’s a murder weapon, a motive and an opportunity. It’s still murder, it’s just murder of the self.

The pertinent question that materialises when we imagine a staged suicide is whether the neck will bruise post mortem. It’s important to figure this part out in order to exclude or be able to fully or partly exclude the ligature from the cord.

What we want to know is whether the bruises on Susan’s neck involve few or many layers of bruising. If there is a single bruise in a clear line then that suggests suicide. If the bruising is more cloudy and spread out over the neck, it may suggest not only hands around the throat but other objects as well, such as the gown’s belt. Multiple bruises suggest a struggle.

We could also say that the absence of a clear ligature line in a person who bruises easily is a critical absence of critical evidence. But the absence of evidence is also evidence.

Rohde’s story forces us to imagine two Susans and two Jasons. One Susan is suicidal, but that scenario is contingent on an honest and basically good Jason. An imperfect but innocent Jason. In the other scenario, Susan is murdered, and Jason is exposed as not not just deceitful, but murderously deceitful. Not just disgusting, but criminally so. Which is it? Which version is real?

If there’s not a trademark ligature bruise across the throat where there should be one, and one that resembles Perumal’s black line, then it’s easier to come to a decision. There’s also the time of death aspect hidden in the riddle of the bruising. If the bruising switches off in a sense, post mortem, then it might reveal the time of death.

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In Season 3 Episode 4 of Sherlock, The Abominable Bride, there’s a scene where a man is beating a corpse in an attempt to figure out post mortem bruising. That man flogging the dead turns out to be Sherlock Holmes.

Bruising is an important and fascinating aspect of true crime. Bruises provide incredibly valuable time sensitive data, color-coded, telling what has happened to a particular person absent their ability to tell us themselves. Before we look at how those colors form and what they mean, let’s look at bruising itself to make sure we understand what it is, and what it isn’t.

Simply put, a bruise is a kind of  internal bleeding. It’s a localised collection of blood floating outside the vessels that usually contain the blood, such as capillaries. When blood breaks through the surface of the skin, or an organ, it’s no longer a bruise, but bleeding.

A bruise tends to form where tissue has experienced trauma or sustained enough damage to cause blood to leak through cracks or ruptures in tissue. It’s important to remember that usually bruises only form where excessive and unusual force is applied. What makes Susan Rohde’s case a little unusual, is that she bruised easily, a hereditary condition she shares with one of her daughters. What I find quite frustrating with this case is that despite having two pathologists in court, we still don’t have a medical diagnosis for Susan’s bruising condition. I mean, is it telangiectasia, run of the mill ecchymosis, what is it? If it was such an obvious condition, why wouldn’t someone use the proper expert term for it?

Speaking of terms, pathologists use a different lexicon to describe various pathological features: a bruise is a contusion but it may involve other terms such as a hematoma and hemorraging. Both these words focus on the blood side of the equation, whereas the contusion focuses on the optics – because something appears injured on the face of it. It comes from the Latin contusionem which means ‘to beat’.

Bruising is usually associated with superficial injury, but any capillary damage, whether subcutaneous or deeper inside the body cavity produces bruising. One can bruise one’s brain [cerebral contusion], heart [cardiac contusion] or even lungs [pulmonary contusion]. For our purposes we’re only going to refer to the bruising of Susan’s neck and throat.

Now, I don’t want to confuse the issue by adding too much fluffy data to the discussion, but it’s worth noting that petechia [also petechiae] may resemble bruising but it’s not necessarily the same thing. The simplest way to describe petechia is that it’s a kind of micro-bruising. Someone who cries a lot may develop petechia in their face. It can also be caused by coughing, weightlifting or sunburn. One sees very tiny red threads [tiny burst capillaries] on the surface of the skin, or even in the eyes. These injuries are a bugger to deal with, 1) because it’s difficult to draw the line between injuries building up to a case of death, and the peri mortem [at the time of death] petechia injuries taking place during the act of dying and 2) because petechial injuries and bruises are so similar. It should be easy – the one is a smaller form effectively than the other.

This may seem a fine line, but stay with me on this. In order to understand bruising, we also need to navigate the fine line of what isn’t bruising.

To figure this out let’s look at a brief dialogue on the subject, referring to murder [as it turned out] by strangling of fifteen-year-old Diane Oarlock. This transcript is courtesy of CNN:

GRACE: You have quite a reputation as a very powerful defense attorney. What is the defense in this case?

ROBERT NUTTALL, ATTORNEY FOR DEFENDANT (VIA TELEPHONE): Well, hello, everyone. This is not a case of who did it. It`s a question of what happened. There`s no question that he killed her. The question was whether or not he murdered her. And to turn a killing into a murder, you need murderous intent, and that inference had to be drawn from the forensic evidence. So what it came down to was really not so much a battle but a disagreement between the forensic pathologists.

GRACE: About the throat, Clark Goldband.

GOLDBAND: Well, Nancy, authorities say they believe that she was, in fact, strangled manually, and that`s how this girl died.

GRACE: So Robert Nuttall, there was a manual strangulation. How does that fit into your theory?

NUTTALL: Not necessarily. The original pathologists found that the cause of death was unascertained. And quite frankly, there was very, very little evidence of trauma either to her body or any evidence of struggle in her room.

GRACE: Wait a minute. Didn`t she have multiple hemorrhages in the eyes? That would be the petechiae, which is a direct indication of strangulation?

NUTTALL: You`re quite right. Those are petechial hemorrhaging, and petechial hemorrhaging is a very strong indicator that, one, the blood`s been cut off, which is pressure to the neck, or more — for our point of view, more importantly, that the air has been cut off either by way of a bizarre mechanism called berking  and perhaps positional asphyxia.

If he choked her, if he squeezed her neck, there`s murderous intent, guilty of second degree. And in our country, because there was a sexual assault, it`s constructive first, and so it moves right up to first degree.

If, on the other hand, he was sitting on her chest while was sexually excited and perhaps her head was against the wall in a position of positional asphyxia, he could very, very well through his unlawful act have cut off the air to her brain. And so therefore, he would be guilty of manslaughter but not guilty of murder.

And the real issue became what was seen in the neck. Was it real bleeding, or whether it was, as the forensic pathologists say, post-mortem lividity or post-mortem pooling, an artifact created after death? And that`s what the jury had to think about.

That’s why I really dislike the petechial side of things, because it’s an injury that can be argued both ways. It can be argued that it occurred naturally during death, or as part of the criminal intent and execution. Either way, it’s difficult to prove, but easy to invoke reasonable doubt.

The word “lividity” also needs explanation, but we’ll deal with it a little further down in this post.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks. Bruising is a color-coded record of injury, that’s the beauty – in a manner of speaking – of this injury. It can reveal a lot. Wikipedia provides the following mechanism for how bruises evolve and devolve.

Increased distress to tissue causes capillaries to break under the skin, allowing blood to escape and build up. As time progresses, blood seeps into the surrounding tissues, causing the bruise to darken and spread. Nerve endings within the affected tissue detect the increased pressure, which, depending on severity and location, may be perceived as pain or pressure or be asymptomatic. The damaged capillary endothelium releases endothelin, a hormonethat causes narrowing of the blood vessel to minimize bleeding. As the endothelium is destroyed, the underlying von Willebrand factor is exposed and initiates coagulation, which creates a temporary clot to plug the wound and eventually leads to restoration of normal tissue.

During this time, larger bruises may change color due to the breakdown of hemoglobin from within escaped red blood cells in the extracellular space. The striking colors of a bruise are caused by the phagocytosis and sequential degradation of hemoglobin to biliverdin to bilirubin to hemosiderin, with hemoglobin itself producing a red-blue color, biliverdin producing a green color, bilirubin producing a yellow color, and hemosiderin producing a golden-brown color.[9] As these products are cleared from the area, the bruise disappears. Often the underlying tissue damage has been repaired long before this process is complete.

Just as we don’t want to confuse bruises with petechia, we don’t want to get mixed up between bruises and lividity. Lividity, also known as livor mortis [livor=”bluish colour” + mortis=”of death”] is a staining of the interior of the body with blood, as it collects in the lower regions drawn by gravity. Since the body is dead, no blood circulation occurs, and so the blood pools. Livor mortis is fairly distinctive to bruising. It’s a much stronger purple-blue or red, and the color tends to occur in large blotches, especially where the body rests against an object.

Superficially, it’s possible to confuse bruises with lividity, especially where the bruises occur within the same reddened or discoloured areas. So it’s important to try to separate bruises suffered in life, and peri mortem, from lividity.

In Susan Rohde’s case this is fairly easy because there’s no lividity around the front of her neck or throat. The fact that she was in an upright position and then lay on her back, means the “mixed signals” between bruises and lividity in the throat area are virtually absent.

In order to show how similar lividity is to the appearance of a bruise, or redness, this image from the Rebecca Zahua case [below] is worth examining. Notice the redness in the back and how the right arm is darker than the left. Zahua was found hanging from a red rope over a balcony, fully naked, hands bound with a shirt wrapped around her neck and its sleeves stuffed into her mouth. She was cut down and allowed to lie on the lawn on her right side for most of the day as helicopter crews buzzed overhead, filming the scene.

Did the shirt have anything to do with the cause of death? What was also missing in the Zahau case were the ligature marks around the neck one would expect from hanging. Just as in the Rohde case, the Zahau case involved two pathologist, and two autopsies. The second actually involved exhuming her coffin in order to perform the vital second autopsy.

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Here’s the pertinent information from the pathologist in the Zahau case, courtesy of the San Diego Tribune:

Several months after Rebecca Zahau’s body was found bound and hanging at a Coronado mansion, a well-known forensic pathologist went on the “Dr. Phil” show to announce that while he couldn’t say with certainty that the woman had been killed, his findings during a second autopsy raised serious questions about the death.

That same pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht, was much more definitive while testifying in Zahau’s wrongful death lawsuit on Monday. “In my opinion, Rebecca Zahau’s death was a homicide,” he said in San Diego Superior Court. “She was manually strangled and it was set up to look like a suicidal hanging.”

Initially, Wecht determined that Zahau’s cause of death was asphyxiation due to hanging, and her manner of death to be “undetermined.” When he went on the Dr. Phil show, he said he was strongly leaning toward the death being a homicide.

But when asked to review those findings for the wrongful death suit, and after doing additional research, the pathologist took a stronger stance — that Zahau had been killed. Wecht discussed several of his autopsy findings to support that conclusion.

The first was the presence of four hemorrhages on the right side of Zahau’s scalp. Wecht determined the injuries were caused by blunt force trauma suggesting Zahau may have been bludgeoned with a hard, possibly rounded object that could have led to her losing consciousness before her death.

Dr. Jonathan Lucas, the San Diego County deputy medical examiner who performed the initial autopsy, had previously called those wounds “relatively minor,” adding that they may have been caused by her head striking the building after she fell from the balcony.

Wecht also said that a fractured band of cartilage in Zahau’s neck [the hyoid bone] wouldn’t have been injured in a hanging death, but it could have been during strangulation. There were other injuries to the muscles and skin of Zahau’s neck that also suggested someone used their hands to strangle her, he said.

The pathologist also questioned how her neck remained unbroken, despite falling 9 feet from the balcony. “If she had simply gone over the balcony railing with the body hurtling down, the force that would have been generated would have resulted in a… fracture,” Wecht said.

There were several other injuries, including a bruise between Zahau’s ribcage that was indicative of blunt force trauma and possibly of a struggle.

The answer to the question: can a body bruise after death is no. One obvious reason for that is lividity. If the blood drains out of tissues in the direction of gravity, there is no blood to rupture out of it when the person is dead, and especially not after they’ve been dead for some time.

In Susan’s case, a lot of her blood had collected in her stomach, lungs, the lower extremities and the dorsal [back] side of her body. If Susan bruised easily, then yes, the cord should have left a clear ligature impression – but only if she really committed suicide.

If the suicide was staged, and the cord was placed over the neck post mortem, then what we don’t see, in terms of the missing ligature contusion line around the throat, well it’s exactly what we expect not to see.

The Rohde defence seem to me to want it both ways. Susan bruised easily, which explains why she was covered in bruises and various [apparently defensive] injuries. Susan didn’t have a clear cord bruise on her neck because the cord was tight, but not very tight, although it might even have been loose…

Besides this, it ought to have been obvious to everyone that Susan was dead immediately when they saw her. When CPR was performed on her, blood immediately splattered out of her mouth, as it was forced out of her lungs. Rohde himself did a little CPR then sat back, saying nothing, as Mark Thompson testified:

As he got to the room, cleaning staff told him there was a “white man inside and a white woman who tried to hang herself”. He saw Susan’s body lying on the bathroom floor and Rohde sitting next to her.

“I was in a bit of shock and Jason looked up and said, ‘Mark help me, Mark help me’.”

Thompson said he immediately started compressing her chest and blew into her mouth. He forgot to block her nose. It became clear to [Thompson] that she was dead because her body was cold, she was “porcelain white” and her lips were blue.

He felt he could not let Rohde and everyone else down so he carried on performing CPR for 30 to 45 minutes. At one stage, he said Rohde got up and blew into her mouth once before sitting down again. Thompson got excited when blood came out of her nose because he thought her heart was pumping again. He recalled telling Susan’s husband, “Jase, Jase, I think we got her back”. He apparently did not respond. Thompson wiped the blood away a few times…

In some cases, the manner of death is clear, but the cause of death is unclear. A good example is the Casey Anthony case. The events of this ten year old “cold case” played out from mid-June onwards, in 2008.

Casey Anthony left the family’s home on June 16th, 2008, taking two-year-old Caylee with her. Casey didn’t return home for 31 days, and when she did, Caylee was gone. Caylee was found on December 11th so badly decomposed investigators had to take soil samples to find her remains. Her DNA was salvaged and positively identified from the centre of her bones.  For reasons I won’t go into here, the manner of death was fairly clear but not absolutely clear – homocide, possibly accidental death. Someone had gone to the trouble to hide a child away. and then lied about it for months.

The cause of little Caylee’s death remains unknown, or at least unclear. But that’s not the case with Susan Rohde, much as her widower wants us to think it is.