#Rohde What did “Drama, but OK” actually mean?

The purpose of a court case is to get absolute clarity on evidence. The accused testifies, and then various witnesses, including experts, are ushered into court to corroborate or challenge a particular version. When all the evidence has been tested and studied to exhaustion, when everything that can be set out and clarified has been, then the court must decide on what really happened, and pronounce a verdict. Guilty, based on damning evidence, or not guilty, based either on evidence, doubt or a lack of evidence.

It’s the job of the Judge, prosecutor and defence advocate to be explicit in either making evidence absolutely clear or debunking it. Naturally there’s also an area, especially for the defence team, to murk certain issues in order to create doubt. An easy way to create doubt is to confuse or contradict a particular version, or simply to undermine it.

Van der Spuy did that by invoking the “whisky” narrative. That the officer drank whisky in the morning while taking a statement does undermine his integrity somewhat, although I’m not sure how it changes the schema of this case, or the crime scene. Brendan Miller is hardly a key witness, and it’s only because he’s testified that the whisky narrative even becomes relevant. If Miller didn’t testified, it wouldn’t have mattered what sergeant Appollis drank or didn’t drink when he took Miller’s statement.

Even so, it’s a point scored by Rhode’s defence team, and that’s a team in dire need of scoring points.

But I’d like to elucidate an area in which – I feel – everyone failed. The court failed. It occurred around the testimony Rohde’s colleague gave within hours of Susan’s death. I’ve provided a link below which opens at 9:30 into Brendan Miller’s very brief but very important testimony. The transcript is provided below the clip.

VAN DER SPUY: She [Susan] requested him [Miller’s eyes dart to Jason Rohde] to come with her as I understand it.

MILLER: Correct.

Miller sticks his tongue out very quickly as he answers this, then looks down. I don’t understand why the Judge and prosecutor didn’t challenge Miller on this aspect, or seek clarity on it. In Miller’s version, Susan arrives at his hotel room almost simultaneously with Jason, and then says his name repeatedly. But that’s not what Jason testified.

VAN DER SPUY: Are you able to comment on her [Susan’s]…condition?

MILLER: No…[speaking quietly]…she was calm, just said: “Jason…Jason…Jason…”

JUDGE: She was sorry- I didn’t hear that. She was what?

See, it’s precisely because Miller said this part quickly and under his breath that the Judge couldn’t hear him. Good for her, she interjects and asks him to clarify.

MILLER: She…just…repeated his name.

But that’s not what he said. He said:

SHE WAS CALM.

When Van Der Spuy asks the question, he uses a weird word to ask how Susan appeared: condition. It’s the word we might subconsciously associate with mental illness. The proper word to use in this instance is demeanor.  Irrespective, Miller answers – he tells the court, he shares a crucial piece of information regarding the last impression other people have of Susan. Is she shouting, is she hysterical?

SHE WAS CALM.

Now, according to Jason, she’s wasn’t calm. She was shouting at him. She was also shouting in the hallway outside the room. So why not get clarity on this? Why not read to Miller Jason’s testimony and get Miller to confirm or contradict it.

What happens here is the Judge asks for clarity and on this vital point, something that slipped out in court is left out. It’s unfortunate the prosecutor didn’t assist the court in this. One wonders whether and how often the Judge might review the livefeed herself, and perhaps get a stronger sense of what she missed during the first go round. Sort of like the action replay and television refereeing in sports. That said, the whole point of the court process is to get the information there and then, that’s why everyone has gone to the trouble to be there – to field evidence, to examine it, to test it, but none of that can happen if it’s not heard, or misheard in the first place.

Now, Miller inadvertently confirms Jason’s version, that he sat on the bed beside Alterskye, because he could only “get up” to leave if he was sat down. Interestingly, in Miller’s version, he doesn’t explicitly mention that Jason and Jolene Alterskye are sitting together on the bed. Perhaps that’s because the murder accused is sitting directly opposite from the dock, and Miller is careful to avoid eye contact during his testimony with his former boss.

Miller is also adamant that he had no idea Jason and Jolene were having an affair, but later admits he was aware, at the conference, that Jason and Susan were patching things together, and that he shared an office with Jolene Alterskye. It seems a little odd. The boss is invited to a very late night nightcap by his colleague, and who is there, his mistress. Didn’t Miller know about it, and if Jason was patching things up, and Susan, was there, wasn’t it a really bad idea to have the drinking in the room setup setup in the first place?

It’s possible Miller had no choice in the matter – at that stage Jason was the boss, and both he and Jolene were Jason’s employees. Perhaps Jason had asked a few of them to set up the afterparty, and they simply did as they were told. Since Susan arrived on the scene in a bathrobe, one can assume Jason slipped out just as Susan was about to take a bath, or have a shower.

It’s unfortunate Miller wasn’t questioned on whether he noticed Susan’s hair, or their ends, were slightly wet or not.  In any event, if Jason wished to escape the hotel room even for a few minutes, while Susan was in the bathroom was perhaps his best chance. When this tiny perk was denied him, did he do a nuclear flip?

Returning to the transcript:

VAN DER SPUY: And did he [Jason] say anything to her?

MILLER: No, he just got up and left.

VAN DER SPUY: You had offered him a drink, you said?

MILLER: Correct.

VAN DER SPUY: Did you pour him a drink; did he accept a drink?

MILLER: No, he left before I could pour.

This is quite ironic. Jason doesn’t have a drink, and thus leaves the hotel room sober and clear-headed. The policeman does have a drink, and thus leaves Miller’s home compromised, along with his statement.

The fact that Jason left the room as quickly as he did suggests Susan didn’t just say his name, but told him to return to their room. Would she have screamed at him, or, having come out of the bathroom almost the second she went him, and having followed Jason not to Alterskye’s room, but another room, all that was necessary was to show herself, and Jason knew the game was up.

At 11:23:35 the previous morning, Susan had WhatsApped Jason her unambiguous feelings:

“You are a devious f***ing bastard!!!!!”

VAN DER SPUY: Once they left, what happened then?

MILLER: Then…[glances down]…they-they-they left and…I think Farrow looked outside the door to see if they were still outside, or if they’d left [sticks tongue out, glances quickly at Jason]…that they were not there. And [shake head] we just carried on chatting.

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I’m not sure what the sucking in of the lips means, but it seems to be associated with someone wanting information and a sort of facial shrug, as if to say, “Sorry, can’t help you.” [But maybe I’m not so sorry.]

VAN DER SPUY: Um…how would you describe the atmosphere? 

MILLER: A little bit tense…um…everyone was just very quiet.

But that’s not how Jason described it. Jason described it as “very, very” tense, and besides that “awkward” and “embarrassing”.

The “intensity” of the day prior to her death, and the last time others saw her alive, is another vital area to get to grips with. Exactly how intense was it? Why would it be tense? One reason is Susan arriving at a room where everyone is dressed, and everyone is an employee of her husband’s, ought to provide some depth to this sense, but then flesh it out.

The texts between Jason, Susan and Jolene also provide crucial insight into just how fraught the situation was between them. I also believe Jason selectively deleted some messages sent by his wife, and some of his own, leaving behind a slightly distorted picture.

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Van der Spuy asks whether anyone opened the door to check whether Jason and Susan were there. Miller’s not sure. Strange. He’s just said “I think she looked out the door”.

VAN DER SPUY: Did you do anything after that?

MILLER: No, a little while later…after they left…I sent…um…Mr Rohde an SMS  to ask if he was okay.

During the later half of this sentence, someone coughs loudly so it’s hard to make out what Miller said, or who coughed.

VAN DER SPUY: Okay, you sent him an SMS. What did you say in the SMS?

MILLER: I [looks down]…I think I said ‘all okay?’ or ‘are you okay’?

VAN DER SPUY: Right. Did you get a reply?

MILLER: The next morning, after seven.

VAN DER SPUY: I think it’s common cause that you got a reply. Can you remember what he said in the reply.

MILLER [Glances at the prosecutor]: Drama [shakes head], but okay.

I haven’t been able to establish exactly when Miller sent his message to Jason, but it was clearly around 02:00 or 03:00. I haven’t been able to establish when Jason responded, other than that it was roughly after 07:00. Again, it’s frustrating that the Judge and prosecutor can’t nail down these absolutely crucial details.

This is why. Let’s engage a in a brief thought experiment. In Version 1, Jason heads to his room like a good boy, he tells Susan he wants to get a divorce when they go back to Joburg, both sleep soundly and then the next morning, around the time Susan is killing herself, he texts Miller:

Drama, but okay.

In Version 2, Jason heads to his room like a bad boy, and he decides to get a divorce from Susan then and there. He’s been embarrassed in public by her for the last time. The texts sent between the two suggest [from Susan] that only hours earlier Jason had threatened Susan in some way.

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All those exclamation marks suggest it was a threat way beyond “I’m going to divorce you”. Prior to that text, almost ninety minutes prior in fact, is another text where Susan is already clear that they’re getting divorced.

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Jason’s response then, if anything, is to calm her down, walk her back on the idea of divorce. He’s certainly not confirming or reinforcing the statement. Later he tells her to pack her bags, but it’s still not about divorce. I think one reason for this may be because their home in Johannesburg [worth over $10 million] was in Susan’s name. If he divorced Susan he might lose a sizable asset.

It’s also worth noting Miller’s own body language when he testifies “drama” [shakes his head] but okay.

In Version 2 there’s the possibility that while Jason’s blood was up, he acted on his feelings, and took them out on Susan. While doing so, Miller sent him a message. Jason only answered this message several hours later. Either Jason was busy murdering Susan when this message was sent [which is why when it was sent matters], or he was asleep.

If Jason was murdering Susan while the message arrived on his phone, and if there was a lot of frantic staging and covering up afterwards, including deleting messages off her and his phone [I explained how he could do this in another blog post] and even Alterskye’s phone, then we can understand how, once it was all done, he might say:

DRAMA, BUT OK

In other words, what were the chances Jason sent that message after Susan was dead, and thought of her murder as drama, but also okay.

The alternative is that Jason’s version is true. The couple argued, even exchanged blows, Jason then went to sleep, got up, cleaned himself up, and then – unbeknownst to him Susan had committed suicide hours after their argument [not in the heat of the moment] – and Jason understood the whole situation as drama, but okay.

But it wasn’t okay, Susan was dead.

In Version 2, we can see how Jason knowing Susan was dead could be “okay” now. It was done, but everything was prepared, and from now on things would be better. Or okay. In Version 1, which is Jason’s version, there was just drama, even though he’d told his wife they were definitely getting divorced. If that was the case, why would things be “okay”? Why not say, “not great”, or “Susan’s very upset about last night” and we’re getting a divorce?

How could things be okay?

Miller’s testimony is doubtful because in the same breath that he says Jason [and Jason and Susan] were A little bit tense…um…everyone was just very quiet he’s also concerned enough to send a very late night message. We don’t know exactly when it was, but probably close to 03:00. Miller had to be fairly familiar with Jason to do this, and risk waking him up.

A little bit tense

everyone was just very quiet

DRAMA, BUT OK

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.

Dr. Perumal, I have a question for you about faeces!

ad3f72f3bfff802f4e9cdeb126e27072b5e9849d.jpgAt 10:00 on Tuesday, June 19th, Jason Rohde’s version of events faces its sternest test.* Dr. Perumal, who performed the second autopsy on August 1st, 2016 in Johannesburg, a week after Susan’s death, will face a barrage of cross-examination from advocate Louis van Niekerk. I have a question of my own.

It has to do with the configurations of blood, faeces and the gown belt. All of these were found outside the bathroom. In fact it was the blood on the wrong side of the bathroom door that first set the cat among the pigeons. That’s where the whispers that it wasn’t a genuine suicide but a staged suicide started.

The blood is a problem, and the fact that it’s Jason Rohde’s blood too, is also a problem. In a hanging suicide scenario, there shouldn’t be any blood besides in the sterile confines of the bathroom. Rohde’s explanation is that he had a physical altercation with Susan, but not enough to draw blood either way. It’s on this knife edge that he’s really based his whole case. We are expected to believe he had a heated argument but a light altercation, and that following this he didn’t strangle her, Susan strangled herself.

If the blood isn’t enough of a hurdle there’s the dressing gown belt which was found on the bed. Why was the belt not with the gown? It’s worth speculating, isn’t it? Susan was an exceptionally fit woman and physically strong. To subdue her would require commitment.

A knee exerting maximum force on her chest would be sufficient to crack several ribs and her sternum. But asphyxia takes time. Even pinned down, a slowly-suffocating person can flail with their arms and legs. This is perhaps how Rohde sustained scratch marks to his back. As soon as you have a scenario where death isn’t instant, you have to consider premeditation. As the victim struggles, the murderer makes up his mind – commits himself – to going through with what he’s doing. Even if it’s in the heat of the moment, the moment may last several minutes. Planning is required to execute – the victim is first subdued, then silenced and then killed.

The important issue to remember in a murder by suffocation is the sound. How do you keep someone quiet while pinning them down? One imagines there might be a knee on the chest, a hand over the mouth, and another hand pushing into the throat. That’s difficult to maintain as the victim attempts to wriggle and writhe out of this grip. It’s the reason three assailants were suspected in the murder of Meredith Kercher.

Jason Rohde also had an injury to his middle finger – perhaps a bite or a scratch wound.

Another important issue is the intimate nature of strangling. It requires physical investment from the murderer. It’s not just the pull of a trigger, it’s a co-ordinated effort to dominate and then drain the life force out of the victim.

The dressing gown belt may have been used as the murder weapon, perhaps stuffed into the victim’s mouth, or over it, or wrapped around her neck. Perhaps the belt and a pillow were used. Perhaps the fabric of the gown itself was used. The belt would have gotten more effective purchase around the whole neck, and the pillow or duvet could have muffled choking and gagging noises, and Susan’s attempts to cry out.

There is some evidence that a soft object is somehow involved:

Abrahams testified that there was a pale appearance over the tip of Susan’s nose and upper and lower lips, with the imprint of her teeth against the inner part of the mouth. She said this showed that Susan may have been suffocated with a soft object.

The belt could have also been a psychological mirror in the staging. If the belt was used to strangle, then a cord was close enough – her murderer might reason – to resemble the instrument of death.

Was the belt left on the bed in error or intentionally? If there was staging, it’s difficult to imagine the belt was unintentionally overlooked. The killer in this scenario was in a confined space and had oodles of time to notice the belt. The fact that the belt and the gown are separated suggests I think an intentional use of the belt, and if that’s the case, the murderer may have wished to maintain a psychological separation between the murder weapon and suicide weapon [the cord].

The blood and belt together raise high hurdles for the defence, but the faeces evidence is even more problematic. Why were there faecal stains in front of the bathroom door?

One might associate blood with murder more than faeces, but the question in this case is whether or not Susan committed suicide behind the bathroom door. The faeces introduces another question: where did she die? Faeces are a direct link to the post mortem process where the body discharges after death. Fluids like urine and mucous drain out of the body, out of several orifices, and if there are injuries, blood also drains. By far the biggest problem in Rohde’s story are faeces on the wrong side of the bathroom.

My question to Dr. Perumal would be to explain the process of faecal discharge after death, and then comment on the evidence that faecal stains were found outside the bathroom. Doesn’t this mean the body was moved? Doesn’t this suggest faeces were moved?

Making it worse – why weren’t faeces discharged onto or immediately below the door on the bathroom side if that’s where Susan breathed her last? Rhode demonstrated how Susan was half-standing against the door…

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*I will provide analysis of the state’s cross-examination of Dr. Perumal’s testimony on Tuesday afternoon.

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Rohde Crime Scene Schematic: What else are we missing? [ANALYSIS]

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It’s unfortunate modern courts don’t make more use of schematics, multimedia and on-screen exhibits. One may argue that the handing out of paper printouts of exhibits, including blueprints of the crime scene, negate the need for overhead displays. Why does it matter if the media and public are in the dark about a crime scene, as long as the court can orient itself?

I’m not sure courts are that oriented. Putting a door inside a courtroom doesn’t do much to orient a court; if anything, it makes it all the more confusing because it’s taken completely out of context.

In the Oscar Pistorius case, a big misstep was in not taking Judge Masipa in loco to the crime scene, to get a feel for the dimensions and layout of the crime scene. The prosecution thought they were clever, and doing enough, by showing the inside of the toilet door, but what really mattered was where Oscar was when he fired the shots. If they’d had that as their exhibit the verdict may have turned out quite differently. I demonstrated this in a blog titled Modelling Reeva’s Fall behind the Door. What was happening in front of the door was critical to establishing what happened behind it.

In the Van Breda and Rohde cases, there were in loco inspections.

In loco becomes invaluable particularly where there is the possibility of obstruction of justice. When the accused imagines something a particular way, without a schematic in front of you, it’s all very much up in the air. It’s hypothetical. What was so frustrating in the Oscar case was something so basic as trying to remember on which side of the bed he was sleeping.

In the Rohde case we know he was on the side furthest from the front door and the bathroom.

A key way an accused obstructs justice is through their advantage of being far more aware of the potential practical scenarios in situ, and the theoretical ambiguity involved at a crime scene in which they hold the trump card. They know what’s possible, and the court doesn’t. They know what’s not possible, or likely, and here the court has a weakness because the court doesn’t know that either.

The easy way to test the version of an accused is by becoming as familiar as we can be with the crime scene, and then activating particular versions within a schematic to see exactly how they play out. As soon as we visualise the crime scene in more detail, obvious problems arise, and often, obvious solutions to a particular version.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the layout of Suite 221 at the Spier Wine Estate.

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In Jason Rohde’s version, two things happen. He’s on a bed, asleep, and then he’s at the bathroom door. Going through it step by step:

1. According to Rohde’s affidavit, he went to sleep at about 03:30. At about 07:00 both Susan and Jason woke up. Susan was still furious with him. Susan still looked very upset. Jason turned on his side and went back to sleep. It’s strange that Rohde has himself awake at 07:00, even though he does nothing. The showing of the message seems to be about a) confirming and time-stamping that Susan is alive [ Dr Akmal Coetzee-Khan believes time of death is 05:40], b) confirming that Susan is still worried about Jolene, and c) directing scrutiny towards the WhatsApp messages – basically asking onlookers to check Susan’s phone and see, ah, so she responded to Jolene’s message at 07:06…

It was supposedly at this time – 07:06 – that Susan sent the final WhatApp to Jolene. It would be interesting to check the computer logs to see if there is any activity. Rohde saying he was awake is an interesting volunteering of information.

2. When he woke up he couldn’t get into the bathroom door.

Rohde says he knew the door was locked from the inside, and he couldn’t open it. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to notice his wife isn’t lying next to him when he woke up. He goes from waking up immediately to the bathroom door.

This is the part that doesn’t make much sense. Rohde can’t get into the door, so he phones his wife. It’s not clear whether he calls out her name. Did any witnesses hear him shouting Susan’s name at 08:00? He also leans in to see if he can hear the sounds of bathwater. Then he kicks the door. What does he not do? Well, why not go around and knock on the bathroom window, or see if he can see into the bathroom window? The bathroom window is immediately above the bath and opaque.

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Not shown in the schematic here is what happens between 2 and 3, which is Rohde “calling for help” at 08:22. Even though he’s right at the door, he doesn’t go out the front door, or open it, to see if there are any cleaning staff walking outside. Since there’s a big conference, it’s likely that they would be moving around as late as 08:22. And what has he been doing for 22 minutes since waking up at 8? He doesn’t check the window. Instead he calls reception and speaks to Mavis, and only after calling reception does he try to kick down the door.

Now imagine the opposite scenario to what one would do if you thought someone was in the bathroom. Imagine Rohde chose the bathroom as his crime scene, what would he need to be aware of? Since the bathroom window was facing public walkways, it’s likely Rohde was very aware of the potential for passersby to see into the bathroom, especially if the lights were on inside. So he would close the shutters, and perhaps keep the lights off as far as possible. He’d also need to do the staging, if he was doing the staging, at a time when afterparty folks were mostly likely to be asleep. This makes 04:00 to 05:00 seem like a reasonable time of death – if Susan was murdered.

Rohde describes the door as solid and that it wouldn’t move an inch when he kicked it. Was it really that solid that if you intended kicking it open you wouldn’t be able to? Or was his heart not into it? Was it more important to have someone there witnessing him opening the door and dramatically “finding” Susan, and showing himself to be surprised and emotional?

In the Amanda Knox case there’s also the half-hearted effort to open the door with the body behind it, and the prime suspects also do just enough to leave a visible crack in the door to show they tried to open it.

When the police arrive, within moments they decide to kick open the door. It opens after one kick. Oscar Pistorius also has great difficulty opening his door, and must smash most of it to smithereens before he’s able to open it. 

 

3. When the handyman arrives, according to Rohde he doesn’t allow the handyman to open the door. That’s why he’s there. Instead, Rohde opens the door and the handyman is standing on the front door side of the suite. Since toilet door open inwards, from the handyman’s vantage point as Rohde describes it, he can’t see into the bathroom even as Rohde opens the door. This allows Rohde to monopolise the reality of what is going on behind the door as he opens it – particularly the tightness of the knot and the number of loops around the door hook.

From the image below, it looks like the door hook isn’t anchored very well into the door. Notice the slight screw damage to the wood and paint.

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4. At point 4, Rohde is on the other side of the door, immediately lifting Susan out of the hanging position, immediately contaminating and changing the crime scene. The handyman, Desmond Daniels is in the perfect position wedged half against the door and the door frame to sort of see Rohde “innocently” coming to the rescue of his wife, and also having his view of the hair iron cord partially obscured by the door. Almost the moment Daniels sees it, Rohde changes it.

As it happened, Daniels apparently saw more than Rohde gave him credit for.

And Daniels has testified that it was he who lifted Susan’s body from the door.

From iol.co.za:

On arrival, [Daniels] was let into room 221 by Jason. He said he asked Jason what the problem was and was told the door wouldn’t open [but nothing about his wife]. Daniels said he used a screwdriver to unlock the bathroom door. He said the door could also be locked and unlocked using a teaspoon, coin or similar object. He told the court there were teaspoons in room 221.

From the schematic we can see the area where the teaspoons were in the room was on a coffe table literally right opposite the bathroom door, bottom right in the image below.

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Rohde let Daniels into the room but he also led him into the room. One question to ask is was the door open when Rohde urgently awaited Daniels? If it wasn’t open, why wasn’t it open?

“When I opened the door I saw a person lying down towards the basin. I opened the door about 30 centimetres ajar and saw the body from the knee down to the feet.

“The accused (referring to Jason) called ‘Suzy’.

“He went in and there was silence for about two to three seconds. He then called me to help. He said I should help him remove the cord from the neck,” said Daniels.

This is a huge giveaway. If it was a genuine suicide, Rohde’s attention would be 100% on his wife, trying to see if she was alive and trying to help her. Instead his attention is on Daniels. The silence is also out of the ordinary, as if Rohde is intuiting what his witness is thinking, seeing and doing while he stage-manages the scene.

[Daniels] said a curling iron was tied around the hook of the door with the tong facing up above the door with the plug hanging downwards. “I removed the cord from her neck. It was not tight around the neck so I easily loosened it,” said Daniels.

We get another version of this same testimony from timeslive.co.za:

When he entered the bathroom‚ Susan was lying naked on the floor with the flex of a curling iron tied around her neck‚ Daniels said. Rohde held Susan while Daniels untied the flex.

That doesn’t make any sense. The first thing anyone would do in that situation would be to untie the cord. It’s not as if Susan weighed a ton or was otherwise out of reach. This is why Rohde describes her as being very heavy – he must explain why he didn’t remove the cord around her neck. 

Back to iol.co.za:

After untying Susan, Daniels said he left Jason in the bathroom with her. He said he went out and called the control room to notify police and ambulance.

He didn’t enter the room again on that day.

From this we find out that Daniels took the steps to call police and ambulance, not Rohde, and also that he removed the cord from her neck, not Rohde. A critical area of contradiction is that Daniels found the cord not to be tight, whereas Rohde claimed it was tight, in fact very tight according to him.

This murkiness also explains why stage-managing Daniels’ entry was potentially necessary. If Susan didn’t commit suicide, and if the staging was clumsy and unconvincing, but couldn’t be improved upon, then Rohde may have had to mitigate these details by having a witness see things while hoping he wouldn’t notice trivial details such as knots, tightness and whether Susan appeared long dead or not.

In sum, it seems it was critical to Rohde that he alter the crime scene as quickly as possible after introducing a witness.  It’s for this reason, as soon as other witnesses arrived Susan was no longer hanging on the door, but lying on the floor on her back.

This may not be accidental either. Since Susan [according to Dr. Khan] died on her back in a supine position, Rohde may have been smart enough to know she needed to be in that position when everyone else saw her. This may also indicate that Susan lay dead on her back for a few hours post mortem, perhaps from around 04:00 to 06:45. If she lay dead on her back for about three hours, and if the suicide was staged shortly or fairly shortly after that, before she was unstaged – perhaps from 07:00 – 08:22 – then the “hanging” position only lasted 90 minutes, or even less. As rigor mortis set in, it would have become more and more difficult to stage a stiff body according to the psychological prescriptions of a potential rather than actual suicide.

In the next blog I’ll deal in more detail with the discrepancies between Perumal and Khan’s autopsy findings, including the #1 reason Susan could not have died in the bathroom.

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Jason Rohde Trial: The #1 Hurdle for the Prosecution

Reasonable doubt, that’s all Rohde’s defence has to prove, and in one critical area, there is doubt. Before we deal with that, let’s look at another famous South African case that played out in the same area as Spier, to see how a criminal case can unravel.

In the Inge Lotz case, the trial turned on the alibi testimony of Fred van der Vyfer’s colleague Mkhuseli Mbomvu. Despite a very compelling mosaic, it fell apart on the alibi aspect, as well as claims about the turnstiles at his work, CCTV footage and cell phone pings. The Lotz murder has never been officially solved.

So did he have an alibi or not? It depends on your source of information. Some say he did, others that he didn’t. What Van der Vyfer’s lawyer successfully achieved [then and now] was reasonable doubt.

In the Rohde case, the most critical area of information is time of death. Did Susan die early in the morning, or later, as Jason Rohde claimed she did? If Susan died earlier, close to 03:00, it’s likely she was murdered immediately after an argument, and in the hours after, Rohde planned, prepared and executed a cover-up.

If Susan died later, after 07:00, which is Rohde’s version of events, then the probability shifts towards suicide. Just as in the Lotz case, Rohde has a lot of explaining to do, and many elements about this case, especially the autopsy evidence, don’t quite add up.

If Rohde is to be believed, he assaulted his wife [pushed her, elbowed her etc], and then left her alone while she killed herself. Her three broken ribs and fractured sternum were, according to his pathologist, caused by CPR. The big black bruise on her inner thigh was caused by doing a handstand and then falling on dumbbells. The cuts on her toes, by a marathon runner slipping on a walk way.

Even if we put all those issues aside, we’re left with one very troubling piece of evidence, and it’s this:Fullscreen capture 20180614 144913

In the same way the alibi testimony puts a spanner in the works in the Lotz case, this WhatsApp at 07:06 is a real problem. It suggests, after things went nuclear a few hours earlier, the couple did settle down in suite 221 and both went to sleep for a while in the same bed. Susan then woke up and began messaging Alterskye.

The other possibility, of course, is that Susan never sent this message. Someone may have impersonated her and sent it. One giveaway about the message is how it starts. Jason said… And the rest of the message is about Jason and Jolene, sent from Susan’s phone.

If the murder did happen at around 03:00, then Jason Rohde had three to four hours to prepare the scene, including setting up and staging the hanging, locking the door from the outside, and sending this message from Susan’s phone.

Fullscreen capture 20180614 153714

Incidentally, in the Oscar Pistorius case, even in Oscar’s own version, he testified that the first thing he did after finding Reeva in the toilet cubicle was reach for her phone. He claimed he was trying to make an emergency call, but as we all know, you’d never use someone else’s phone to call when you have your own. Most phones are key coded anyway.

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In order for the prosecution to prove that this message wasn’t sent by Susan, Louis van Niekerk must be able to demonstrate that Rohde had the ability to send messages from his wife’s phone.

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Not only does the above exchange confirm Susan’s access, but Rohde himself admits: “If I call her [Alterskye] it will come up on Siri [which he writes as seri].” Siri is Apple’s virtual assistance, which confirms which operating system they were using. Besides this, Rohde admitted as much during his testimony under cross-examination.

Since his wife had access to his iCloud, and naturally so did he, and by virtue of Susan’s phone having access, Rohde’s access was retroactive. Meaning, he didn’t need Susan’s handset to be able to send messages, just the iCloud access.

Before we continue, a disclaimer. I don’t own an iPhone, although I do have an iPod and iTunes account. The protocols of interoperability are constantly changing, so what they were in July 2016 isn’t absolutely certain. What there’s no doubt about is:

  1. The Rohdes were using the iCloud system
  2. It was possible to send messages from either phone remotely, using that system

I’ve taken the liberty to research this a little online. The screengrabs below show this is a real issue amongst users. It also suggests how Oscar’s call records could have been wiped remotely [all that is needed is the username and password], and how any criminal can selectively clean incriminating messages in the same way. It’s just another element to the cleaning and staging of the overall crime scene, it’s just in the digital dimension.

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Fullscreen capture 20180614 151536Fullscreen capture 20180614 151606Fullscreen capture 20180614 151622Fullscreen capture 20180614 151633Fullscreen capture 20180614 151728Fullscreen capture 20180614 151741Fullscreen capture 20180614 151752Fullscreen capture 20180614 152020Fullscreen capture 20180614 152110

In sum, not only was it possible to do cell phone staging, but this is indicative of a fair degree of technical know-how. If Jason Rohde did stage the 07:06 message, if he could break into his wife’s phone, then wouldn’t the former CEO have the chutzpah to figure out something as simple as this?

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