Van Breda Sentencing: “Taking a wrong turn” – does it happen suddenly or systematically?

20180605_110408Nobody knows why Henri committed mass murder, not even on Day 69 of his mammoth trial. Since the state didn’t need to prove motive, they didn’t. Henri was convicted of intentionally murdering his family, and attempting to murder his sister. The law doesn’t require that anyone explain why he did it, it’s sufficient to prove simply that he intended to. That may be sufficient for the law, but it’s not sufficient for human beings.

The case felt very unsatisfying today in court, although it has to be said, before Henri himself arrived, the court was very festive, with lawyers, family and journos making jokes and chattering excitedly. One could hardly imagine a young man’s life was hanging in the balance.

Over the past few days folks in the media have been speculating about “why”, some getting warm, as they say, some merely stirring up the cliches you invariably hear about any crime or criminal that shakes our world: evil, psychopath, monster.

Henri is none of these things. But one really has the sense that Henri has made peace about what he did, even if no one else has, which suggests that he had very good reasons [for him] to do what he did. So what were they?

The Judge, confronted with a presentable, pleasant, soft-spoken, reasonable young man [for the most part], was disinclined to pronounce judgment today, even though advocate Botha basically told him “I got nothing more”. Desai even offered him a chance to confer with his client, and Botha, surprisingly, spurned the offer.


It’s for this reason that Judge Desai was reluctant to pronounce sentence today, or even tomorrow. June 6th, Wednesday, was the original day set aside for sentencing, but evidently the Judge needs an extra day to mull this case cover. If Botha can’t provide him with something to think about, perhaps the Judge will come up with something on his own.



Interestingly, in court today Henri spent by far the most time not looking at the Judge, but looking down. I’m not sure whether he was reading a letter, reviewing messages on a cellphone or taking notes [or none of these], but for the first time in this trial, he didn’t look at the Judge throughout the proceedings. There were moments when he glanced up, but for the most part he seemed resigned to his fate. I wonder whether that wasn’t an instruction from counsel, to look down, to appear defeated. Conversely, when an accused has been convicted, making eye contact with a Judge that has convicted you, may seem confrontational. Aggressive.

Ironically, he was less sleepy and doped-up than on the day of the verdict. It seemed to be just another day for Henri in court… Well, except that it wasn’t. It wasn’t just another day. It was a day after spending two weeks in jail. Henri didn’t seem the worse for wear, but that’s exactly the point: Henri is trying to show himself [and the world], that he’s his own man, that he’s a man. What more than that?


I’ve also heard a few people saying “Henri just snapped”. I don’t believe that for a second. Murders don’t just happen by accident. Even accidents don’t happen by accident. To illustrate my point I’m going to refer to two examples, one from my own experience, the other from Henri’s:

  1. The Wrong Turn

This morning was a disaster. It was the first time I arrived at court [for the Rohde trial] late in very many visits. One might say I arrived late because I took a wrong turn. Yes, you could say that, just as you could call Henri a psychopath, and feel that suffices as an explanation. It doesn’t.

So what’s my reason for being late this morning; what lies behind the wrong turn?  Didn’t it just happen?  Well, it did and it didn’t. It’s a very tricky road from where I’m staying in Woodstock, back up to the N2 highway. There’s only one road, and if you take the wrong turn you end up going on the N2 away from Cape Town. That’s what I ended up doing. Another turn had me entering the belly of the city, right where I didn’t want to be. It wasn’t that I didn’t know my way, I did, and I arrived on time two weeks ago despite staying more than 120 kilometres outside the city, in Hermanus.

So what happened? I’m sure you’re not interested in my personal issues, just as the court isn’t interested in Henri’s personal issues. They want a quick, easy solution. He murdered his family because he didn’t get a car for Christmas, or some such nonsense. When you care about the personal nonsense, you get a real sense of the emotional dynamic that resonates. As a true crime writer, this is what I’m fishing for, and where I’m fishing, evidently no one else is.

I can tell you I was extremely bitter and upset as the clock ticked by and I was still stuck in traffic this morning. I was livid. But traffic is an interesting thing. If you don’t try to be clever, you tend to get where you need to go, just like everyone else.  Just stay in your lane, be patient, and head in the direction you need to go, like everyone else. If you’re immature, angry, impatient or nervous, you make mistakes – like I did. Part of the reason for the mistakes was leaving the hotel much later than I planned, leaving no room for error. When there was an error I had only myself to blame, and yet I wished I could blame someone else. Young people, when they have the same burning resistance to being stuck in a bad decision [their’s or someone else’s] can also lash out.

My point is, the lashing out didn’t just happen, it comes from an attitude, a laziness, a lack of preparation, perhaps even a lack of attachment to the real world. To be honest, I only had about four hours sleep last night. I couldn’t switch off for some reason. When my alarm went off, I put it on snooze about three times. There’s my mistake. If I had more time, I’d have had plenty of time to make mistakes and adjust.  But I left things to the last moment.

There’s another aspect to Henri, which you’ll only understand if you’re familiar with my personal circumstances. As I freelancer, and full-time writer, I have to be self-motivated, and I have to get what I come for when I take the trouble to attend trial. This trip has cost over R4000, including flights and car rental, but excluding accommodation, which has been fortuitously paid for using a friend’s hotel points [so that part is free]. So when  you’re stuck in traffic because you were a dumb, sleepy and lazy fuck, you clench your fists in anger and shout at your windscreen. But it doesn’t do any good.  It’s your own fault. Man up to it, and do better next time. Some don’t. For some they pay for a wrong turn for the rest of their lives, but it’s hubris to say if only I went the other way, everything would have turned out sweet.

In reality, you probably have a wrong turn coming. The issue is how do you deal with it when it happens?  Do you get angry, do you lash out, do you give up, or do you take responsibility. Do you accept personal blame [account to yourself], express regret and remorse and resolve to do better? Because there’s always another chance to do better [or fuck up even worse]. That’s life.

Do you see how we need to see the “wrong turn” as part of a complicated process, which on the one hand involves the complexities of traffic, and the nuances of rush hour, and on the other, the psychologies and attitudes of the genius behind the wheel [who is very likely to be an idiot on some other day – it has to happen!]

Criminals too, don’t just happen, they are part of a process of becoming too. If Henri had lashed out and had a weird out-of-body experience after a very random thing, he wouldn’t have obstructed justice as smoothly and persistently as he tried to do. Also, he would have battled to save Marli’s life. He didn’t. So what was going on with him?

2. What’s really eating at Henri?

This section deserves to be very long, even book length. The bad news is, I’m not going to write very much here because I’ve analyzed Henri’s motive exhaustively in a trilogy of books, and a fourth is on the way either tomorrow or Thursday. The good news, is I’ll touch on two aspects very briefly here. You’re welcome.

a) Henri and Danielle’s weight loss

Sitting in court today, Julian Jansen was beside me, and remarked on how incredibly thin Danielle has become. Anorexic thin. So much, she’s hardly recognizable. Henri also, has lost a lot of weight.


Julian wondered why both have lost so much weight. I think the answer is that the verdict and sentence has hollowed them out in a sense, physically, psychologically, emotionally. They’ve had months away from court, but each day away has had an inevitability about it, that the freedom they cherished was about to be stripped away, and nothing on Earth could prevent that.

Henri’s relationship with Danielle is also significant. There’s something tragic about it – the two star-crossed lovers, caught in a tragic bind with a happy ending extremely unlikely. I think Henri’s found himself in her, and through her, and vice versa. The fact that both have withered away towards the end of the trial speaks volumes. Psychologically, I think if they didn’t see this result coming, they feared it, and at the very least were excruciatingly aware of the possibility of it.


b) The Van Breda Family Dynamic [Including meat-and-potatoes sibling rivalry]

The day after the murders, Henri was supposed to go on a scuba diving course in Mozambique, for three weeks. The day after that, Rudi was scheduled to fly back to the University of Melbourne. You want to know why Henri felt angry, no, a rage, against his family? Part of it was how much he was out of step with Rudi.

Here’s a reminder who Henri was in January 2015; how he looked, and how he was.



Henri probably blamed Rudi for this, as well as himself, as well as the world and his family. One thing is clear, his brother was completely outshining him and there was nothing he could do to clear the deficit. No way to catch up. Rudi had many friends and many beautiful girlfriends. Henri had virtually no friends and no girlfriends. He had no prospects whatsoever, and his father kept reminding him of that…

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Henri didn’t want to go scuba diving, his aunt Leenta says as much in an interview she did with Huisgenoot magazine, and given the outcome, it makes sense that he was pretty pissed off about something. Where did Henri want to be? Have you ever been to Melbourne? It’s been voted one of the world’s best cities many times over. It is a beautiful city, a far better and nicer and sweeter city than Cape Town. Its university is also streets ahead of UCT. But you wouldn’t know that if you didn’t dig into Henri’s [and Rudi’s] backstories. You wouldn’t know what Henri knew he was missing out on. Just as those who saw me fuming in my little rental car this morning, thought I was an asshole with a Gauteng registration plate. You won’t know until you pay attention. You won’t know until you find out who the person is, live in their world, walk in their shoes.

Henri’s world in 2015 was the world of the student. Do you remember your student days? Well, Henri was a student and he wasn’t. His brother was going back to the land of milk and honey, while he was going to fucking Mozambique. Does Henri strike you as the outdoorsy type, the guy who likes adventures on the seven seas? But Henri did want to be back in Australia and on the night of the murders, it suddenly became clear that he was on a different road, and he was likely never getting where he wanted to go. When you’re a student, that’s crushing…

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