I arrived about 5 minutes late for the Rohde trial. As I stepped into court I was flushed with peak hour traffic stress. The hair on the back of my neck was still up. My heart was beating a mile a minute and suddenly, that square box all of of watched on our various screens…I found myself in that box. Suddenly there they all were – and there was Rohde, in his last hour on the stand. He was explaining that he wasn’t aware that he was bleeding that night. Day 44 of the Rohde trial was doozy, the irony is, on this day of all days, the livestream was gone – seconded by the all-absorbing Van Breda case, down the hall in Court 1.
Late as I was, the timing wasn’t bad. Van Niekerk was about to ask Rohde to demonstrate the gown. How had Susan been wearing it when she died. Court 22 is a helluva lot smaller and more intimate than Court 1. It also all happens on one level, whereas Court 1 has huge shelves for chairs, and an upstairs gallery that makes the whole room feel like a ship from Jan van Riebeeck’s era. Court 22 is so small, and there is such a small handful of people inside, it’s hard for them to not look at you. I’ve sat in on weeks of the Van Breda case and made eye contact…I can count the number of times on one hand [including today]. On Day 44, Rohde’s 6th day on the stand [his 4th under cross-examination as far as I know] there were fireworks.
For starters Rohde had his back slightly turned to the prosecutor as Van Niekerk addressed him, a habit he’d initiated since the day before. What you can only see when you’re there, is how it all fits together, and so, I was surprised that when Rohde answered, he didn’t address anyone. He didn’t look at anyone. He sort of looked into the no man’s land below where the Judge was sitting, and slightly to the right of her. It was very bizarre. His shrugging, eyebrow wiggling and involuntary blinking was excessive today, perhaps the most of the entire trial.
Van Niekerk poked Rohde full of holes, asking him, for example, if he possessed a screwdriver [the tool the handyman used to open the bathroom door]. When Rohde answered that he thought he did, but wasn’t sure if he’d ever used it, you could hear a toilet flush. It was Rohde’s credibility going down the drain.
At one point, the Judge was stern with Rohde, cutting in and telling him to answer the question as it was put to him. I noticed her lips clenching slightly in frustration. It’s a pity this moment wasn’t captured on the livestream either. It was a very sharp and stern rebuke from the Judge.
There were a bunch of moments worth highlights from Day 44, but since I’m writing a book on Rohde, I’ll highlight just 2.
- The Gown
You might recall from yesterday’s testimony that Rohde was adamant that his wife was clothed. Rohde claimed she was clothed [normal], but the handyman said she was naked. Both are somewhat true, based on the crime scene photos I saw. Susan was clothed in a gown, in the sense that she was lying on it. But she was naked in the sense that her breasts – everything – was visible. Why is Rohde so pedantic about whether she was dressed or not? Simple. If she was naked, it speaks to murder, to being killed in a way that one has no control over, and what’s more, the murder is so violent, one is “stripped” of what one is wearing. It’s also possible Rohde may have taken off her clothes himself, after murdering her, and washed traces of himself from her body. Then added the gown afterwards.
On the other hand, if Rohde was clothed [in the gown] then the narrative that she got up and consciously decided to end herself gains a little more credibility.
During court today, Van Niekerk basically told Rohde, you said she was clothed – okay, show us how she was clothed… I was pretty gobsmacked that he basically just put the white gown sample onto the model as if it was everybody’s business – there you go. Gown on. Not even hanging off one shoulder? For Rohde it was no big deal. Susan was wearing a gown; so he puts a gown onto the model.
But there’s a problem. Besides the belt being in the other room, there’s the potential problem of bloodstains not on the inside of the gown, but the outside. This could be seen when photographing the gown up close during the adjournment. This suggests that the gown was worn inside out. If so, then who is more likely to have pulled the gown onto Susan inside out, Susan, or the murderer trying to cover up her murder, and dress her, but not paying attention to the little detail of whether the robe was inside out or not?
2. An Emotional Moment?
Van der Spuy was also very flustered during Day 44. He asked for an adjournment, then seemed to ask for an extension on the adjournment. I left the court briefly as Rohde’s father was about to enter it. We had one of those moments where I’m moving left to allow him to pass, but then he moves the same way, and we end up sort of checkmating one another. I didn’t know the man was Rohde’s father, or the woman behind him his mother, I was informed a few moments later. But it puts things into a different perspective to know his parents are there, listening to him, believing him, evidently supporting him no matter what. Susan’s family, however, don’t appear to be in court.
In the above image, it’s the man and woman standing in the corner, the man has a reddish sweater on, the woman a cream-colored jacket. The pair seemed a little haggard, or perhaps they’re just elderly. When I took the photo [above], the man seemed aware of it, and turned to avoid the camera.
I was just returning to my seat, after photographing the front of the court, when Rohde entered the door. We ended up passing one another in the carpet space between the door and the dock. It’s a chilling moment, walking by a man accused of murder.
When Rohde was in the dock, I took a few photos of him. I don’t know whether he was nervous, trying to purposefully ruin the photo or involuntarily pulling a face, but as I photographed him his face – as far as I could see – contorted and gyrated dramatically. And then he looked at me, or glared, as it seemed to me.
But the real emotional moment seemed to come a few minutes later. The Judge had remained absent throughout, while various cliques started talking amongst themselves. I was chatting to a News24 videographer who wanted to know if I could speak Afrikaans. He wanted to know the Afrikaans word for “gown”.
Then, a moment later, Rohde disappeared. He was in the dock, obviously, but it was impossible to see him. I stared for a short while, wondering what was going on. Just then, a grey-haired fellow sauntered by the dock, leaned over and greeted Rohde like they knew each other. Rohde gingerly sat up straight, looking as if he’d gotten out of bed. I could be wrong, but my impression was he had keeled over to have a private moment, perhaps he was in tears, perhaps he was simply feeling overwhelmed. That was the last thing I saw before I ducked back into Court 1.
On Day 45 I will attend the Rohde trial exclusively.
More than likely the livestream will also be available.