I learned my lesson after the traffic travesty on June 5th. On Day 45, instead of arriving 5 minutes late, I pitched up at Court 22 15 minutes early.
When you arrive at the door there’s a small sign on the door saying, quite discreetly: PLEASE DO NOT BANG THE DOOR. When you’re inside the court, and the door is closing, the hydraulics activate in the last 8 inches and suddenly yank the door closed with a loud BANG. And then you realize too late: that’s what the sign was about.
On Wednesday I took the exact same seat I’d taken on Tuesday, one step from the intermittently banging door. Almost the moment I sat down, Jason Rohde approached me, and said softly “I wouldn’t sit there, if I were you.” I looked up at him quizzically. His face was in mine, right in my personal space, but instead of hostility there was friendliness. “You really don’t want to sit here,” he added with a wink and a smile. “Oh, I see…” I answered, gathering my things.
The very first day I sat in court, Jason Rohde had sat here. This seat was for The Accused. Since on other days, including the livestream days, Rhode had always been on the stand, I’d forgotten where he was supposed to sit when he wasn’t on the stand. Well, it was here.
I promptly got up, grabbed my bag and excused myself. I was surprised. In person, Rhode is charming, affable, even likable. It caught me off guard.
There’s a lot to say about Day 45. It was quite a traumatic day for me, in the sense that I was exposed – very quickly and intensely – to the defense of exhibit of autopsy photos [during the adjournment]. Although I write about true crime full-time, and although I’ve seen many grisly crime scenes and post mortem images, from those of children, to the terrible neck wounds to young Meredith Kercher, to the macabre end of Travis Alexander who died ten years ago on June 6th], Reeva Steenkamp and Nicole Brown Simpson, I’m not hardened to these gratuitous images. Not yet. I still find them exceedingly unpleasant.
I’d seen in situ images of Susan Rhode months earlier, in court, and those images were disturbing enough, of the woman lying mostly naked, dead, on the bathroom floor. At the time, there seemed to be something exceedingly distasteful about presenting a naked woman on the wall of a court room, so that even complete strangers [like me] could ogle or analyse. I found it fascinating and disconcerting how a group of people could sit in the same room and look at these terrible images as if it was nothing; an average series of scenes from the average film?
As disturbing as those images were, the defense exhibits I witnessed today were a lot worse. There was less nudity but more trauma. There were close ups of the face, the dead eyes, loose lips, fingers wrinkled and bony like those of an old witch. The sack of potatoes I was looking at used to belong to, used to be a person. The sack once lived and breathed, had a name, consciousness of self. Held life. Gave birth to live.
The mannequin that was used in court today made a sanitized contrast as a stand-in for the dead Susan Rohde. The body shape indicated it was a woman, the eyes and lips that it was a young woman, unsullied by time or the fates. Like many modern woman, this woman was perfect – perfectly hairless. Not a single blemish on her plastic dermis. Also, she was completely compliant. If she needed to lie, she lay, stand, she stood. She wasn’t required to speak so she never did.
In other words, the mannequin was exactly what Susan was not – to Jason. And so it was ironic, that this fine [but fake] sexual facsimile stood and lay in court, as a stand-in for Susan, as an integral part of the defense narrative.
This was where the cord was…Perumal demonstrated…and drew a line. The mannequin didn’t blink, didn’t wrestle, didn’t make a sound or struggle. Didn’t say one word. And yet she did appear to fight back as the various orderlies attempted to stand her up or was that gravity, or Susan’s ghost? She wouldn’t stand… She needed a pedestal so she could be propped up.
I’d love to indulge in the intricacies of the hyoid bone [a marvel of evolution], and the hyoid bone fragment as it appeared in the defense document. In order to do so conscientiously would involve 3000 words plus. It needs its own chapter.
I will deal with that in a narrative, and how Susan’s post mortem narrative fits in with similar case lore, including the asphyxia related deaths of Rebecca Zahua, Meredith Kercher and six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. What I want to focus on now is time of death, which is the hinge along which this case turns.
If Susan died earlier in the evening, then she died right at the time she was caught up in an conflagration [a euphemism for a murderous confrontation] with her adulterous, mendacious husband. If she died later, then the suicide narrative gains a little credence. Time of death is thus seminal in this case.
Before dealing with that, I want to touch on one little aspect of Perumal’s verbacious testimony. It’s this section here at 46:33 during part one:
You’re welcome to watch the pertinent two minutes on your own – from 46:33 to 48:35. Click on the link above and it will open where it needs to.
Now, as someone who covered the Oscar Pistorius case exhaustively, it was weird hearing Perumal [who wasn’t even called to testify in that trial] pat himself on the back as a hallowed expert, and perhaps something more – clairvoyant?
While Perumal testified, I looked at Thomas Mollett, sitting immediately in front of me, to see the expression on his face. Unfortunately, the livestream cuts to a tight shot of Perumal as he goes through this…hogwash…in my opinion, but if you look carefully it does catch one of a few glances I made in Thomas’ direction.
On May 8th, 2014, iol.co.za reported on someone else finding that bullet fragment [and not a “spent casing”] in the toilet bowl of Pistorius’ upstairs toilet:
Wolmarans had investigated the crime scene personally a short while after the police cleared Pistorius’ home. He noted that the toilet door had been removed by police. Wolmarans was also responsible for finding a bullet fragment in the toilet bowl and a small piece of tile that was missed by investigators.
Okay so maybe Iol got it wrong. On the same day, enca.com reported:
Ballistics expert Tom “Wollie” Wolmarans is Oscar Pistorius’s witness expected to cast doubt on the state’s evidence regarding the shooting of model Reeva Steenkamp…Wolmarans, who spent many years as a ballistics expert in the police, told the court he has done more than 10 000 forensic investigations and has testified in more than 500 cases over the course of his career. Wolmarans told the Pretoria High Court that he had found additional evidence that the state had missed. [By] putting on rubber gloves and feeling around in the toilet bowl, he picked up a piece of core bullet fragment and a piece of tile.
News24.com fielded the same story.
Okay now I’m confused. I thought Perumal found the casing after his autopsy told him where to look? Let’s play that again:
PERUMAL: But because I did the autopsy, and I understand [holds his one arm out wide to convey his wiiiiiddde understandinggggg] the pathology of the gunshot wounds sustained by the deceased, when I went into the scene, when I went into the house, I could immediately tell [chops hand down adamantly, righteously on the side of the stand] that there was a spent projectile sitting in the toilet bowl. And that was retrieved by me.
If I was the prosecutor in this case, I’d play back this clip from the newsfeed, in court, with the sound up so everyone can hear loud and clear, and then field the evidence of Wollie Wolmarans which is also available on livefeed here at 2:04:14. Incredibly Wollie gives the date and time when he retrieved the fragment as well. Thanks Wollie!
If I was the prosecutor, I’d play both while cross-examining Perumal and ask him to explain why the cheese is rotten in the state of Denmark? Might be a good idea to also contact Wollie to drive the discrepancy home.
For the rest of us, I want to make it clear, that this song and dance is about one thing – creating doubt. Perumal creates doubt by establishing himself not just as credible, but as more credible than the state’s expert pathologist. But really, how credible is he? If he was so credible why did he fail to pitch at the Oscar Pistorius trial and the Van Breda trial? If he had found such crucial evidence, why did the defense – in both cases – not bother to call him?
Perumal testifying in Cape Town is a big deal. It’s expensive. He lives in Durban so he has to be flown here, accommodated here, fed here, and on top of that, he can charge R20 000 a day for his consulting services. Not a bad living…
There’s likely to be a lot more testimony from Perumal, it may stretch into days and weeks. Each day is another 20K KA-CHING!
Some may have noticed I’d had my fill after three-and-a-half hours. I went for lunch – I had to, since I’d missed breakfast – and since the sustenance was good, I decided not to rush my patron, who was also paying for the meal.When I returned to court I passed Rohde’s parents, asked them if it was adjourned, and they said it was. At the door, Jason Rohde was on the other side, with his back to me. As I opened the door he sort of walked into me.
“Sorry,” he said, and sounded like he meant it. Weird. Two close encounters right at that same damned banging door in one day. Inside the emptying court, I chatted with some of the folks inside, and then assisted the prosecutor and Thomas in carrying the case files out of the building. To put the volume of those files into perspective: I’ve packed to stay in Cape Town for a week. Clothes, shoes, this and that. My bags, all my bags, weigh less than those files do.
Back home, I reviewed some of the coverage. Jenna Etheridge’s tweets provided a cogent highlights package of the 45 minutes I missed.
An incredibly important snippet came through in those final minutes of the third and last session on day 45. This was it:
At 17:48 in the above clip, as Van der Spuy weighs in about the state’s pathologist’s time of death calculation which was “totally flawed”, notice Perumal’s body language. He immediately crosses his arms, pretty much the first time he did so while on the stand, and then raises a finger to his mouth. When Van der Spuy finished stating the question, Perumal unwrapped himself and then tried to debunk Khan.
I don’t want to spend too much time here wading into the forensics. What I will say is Khan, in my view, and I think it’s the sensible view, was right in calculating a time of death at approximately 03:00. It feels right. It’s the same time Reeva Steenkamp was murdered, give or take a quarter of an hour, and it’s also about the time the Rohde’s were locked in an argument which culminated in…them both going to bed. Khan’s mistake was to gauge his assessment at 95% accurate. It’s not a huge booboo, it would have been worse if he’d said 99% or 100%. He probably could have left it as “very certain”. The same anal attitude to time of death by the defense [quibbling over 5%], is mirrored in the state’s fixation on the tightness of the knot. These issues of vital to both sides for various reasons.
Instead of dealing with the forensics around time of death, I want to be explicit about how absurd certain defenses have been about the appearance of life post mortem. That is clearly the case here, where Rohde was so convinced his wife was alive, the CEO performed a little CPR on her corpse, and convinced someone else to do the same. That person, Thompson, seemed quite sure Susan was far beyond rescue. She was icy cold, her lips blue and skin like marble. According to Rohde she was warm.
In the JonBenet Ramsey case, the six-year-old girl lay dead in a basement in Boulder Colorado in the middle of winter. She was probably dead for a minimum of seven hours before her father scooped her little body up and carried her upstairs [contaminating her body and the crime scene], but more likely she’d been dead for twice that long, 13-14 hours. Her body was found at around 13:00. She died close to midnight on Christmas Day.
The absurd part is that her father, the millionaire John Ramsey and a vice president of Lockheed Martin, still thought his daughter was alive. Witnesses said the child was so stiff with rigor mortis, her arms were stretched in the air as he carried her. She was stiff as a board. Also, spit and small traces of blood were on her cheek. She urinated on herself. And yet John had to be told by an officer to put the child down, and that she was dead. Really, he didn’t know?
Pathologists can also sometimes play dumb too. Whether that’s happening here or not, the real question is, can the state challenge Perumal’s credibility? What do you think, so far?
Note: For the first 45 minutes of Day 46 I’ll be attending the Van Breda sentencing trial in Court 1. It’s likely to be a short, but intense and life-changing few minutes.