Henri’s New Look: Day 64


When 23-year-old triple murder accused Henri van Breda stepped into Court 1 on Day 64, for a brief moment he resembled his equally bald defense counsel. Are three bald heads better than two? Was this really a good option for Henri?

Henri, I’m advised “cleans up quite nicely” when he wants to. Some female readers of the first two books have said as much, as have a few members of the public I’ve encountered in the public gallery of the Western Cape High Court.

To be honest, I hadn’t noticed. If anything, I found Henri something of an oddball, who often seemed calm if ill-at-ease in court.

It’s interesting how impressions differ. For me, the physical attractiveness of an accused is pushed far to the background as one examines what they have done.  Of course, we’re all human beings, and some of us are more human than others. Having heard Henri’s appearance in glowing terms, I started seeing him in a different way. He can look like a nice guy, and at turns, has a male model-ness about him.


If the image adjustment was meant to distract the court – and the judge – from Susan Galloway’s arguments, it sort of worked, and didn’t. Henri’s new look occupied many on social media, and the media, but not necessarily in a good way, as this video capture shows. Have a read at the comments below Aartsi Narsee’s tweet.

The last time I saw an image change crash and burn was in the Larry Nassar case. Nasser, if you didn’t know, was recently convicted in the biggest sexual abuse scandal in sports history.

Pictures of the doctor before trial show what appears to be a professional, well-respected doctor. In court, the five-o’clock-shadow suddenly made Nassar look exactly the way he was – a creep and a predator using his credentials as a doctor to prey relentlessly on women.

Nassar’s behavior – and appearance – pissed off a Michigan court so much, one aggrieved father [265 victims came forward] tried to pounce on the little slime-ball. No charges were brought against the understandably unhappy father.

Surprisingly, over the course of this case, Henri’s appearance has varied almost as much as his ties. This appears to be both a sign of immaturity, and of a youngster “finding himself.” What’s strange and certainly compelling about this case, is we are seeing Henri growing up [become a man, arguably] inside and outside the court, and on camera. In a way, it’s a Western Cape High Court version of The Truman Show, except the stakes are much higher in The Van Breda Show.

When the show is over, Henri may well spend the rest of his life behind bars. Whatever we may say about his guilt or innocence, given his youth and obvious potential, this is a sad ending, but far less tragic than the way the lives of Martin, Teresa and Rudi ended on that January morning three years ago.

No matter what Henri loses, Martin, Teresa and Rudi have – and always will have – lost everything.

The incident took place barely three months after Henri’s 20th birthday. Although three years have passed since then, and Henri’s tested out various looks and identities for himself, he’s clearly still a very young and brash 23-year-old.

By Day 64, Henri’s appearance has fluctuated the full circle; from shaggy Neanderthal to evil Nazi. Until now,  for the most part he’s come across neat and presentable, even if, as Galloway noted in her closing arguments, Henri’s decision to take the stand “ultimately left a poor impression [in terms of his alleged innocence]”.

By shaving away his hair, the face is far more exposed, and without hair there’s less reason to pretend to brush at one’s face in order to hide nervous ticks etc.

Nartsee’s video has exposed Henri’s seemingly screwy countenance, but the fact is, when one examines the LiveFeed throughout the trial very closely [I highlighted dozens of nervous lipsnarls Henri made during testimony in Diablo], that hooded, screw-slightly-loose look has been there all along.

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For the Judge, it will be important not to factor appearances into his assessment of Henri, but Judges are human too, and if anything, Henri’s new look has shot himself in the foot.  Because he looks so different, it’s difficult not to look at Henri even more closely than we are, and wonder: who are you?

We have no way of knowing the outcome on this side of time, but it’s possible a poor grooming decision for a triple murder accused may add years to a potential sentence, just as good grooming decisions [for example in the Jodi Arias case] can sometimes mean the difference between a death sentence, and life imprisonment.

Coming soon: Diablo2  available in middle February 2018


Van Breda: Monday’s Closing Arguments – what to expect?

More than three years have passed since the grotesque triple murders that rocked the affluent De Zalze Estate in Stellenbosch on January 27th, 2015. Monday, February 12, 2018 will mark the 64th day of this extraordinary trial, a trial about a third longer than the Oscar Pistorius trial which stretched to 43 days.

During the three years following the murders of his parents and brother, triple-murder accused Henri, who was barely 20-years-old at the time [he’d emerged from his teenage years just three months before the murder], has matured. He’s become handsome, more confident and, if he had a stutter, at 23 he’s a well-spoken young man.


During the three month hiatus since Judge Desai reluctantly postponed proceedings [at the behest of Henri’s advocate Pieter Botha], Henri and his girlfriend have relocated yet again, while Marli continues to live with a teacher in an undisclosed location. Marli would also have received her matric results some time in early January.

On February 12th, when the court reconvenes, what can we expect?

  1. Expect fireworks. The public are often of the view that the first day of a trial, and the last day, and perhaps the accused’s evidence, are the sum total of a trial. The closing arguments are a distillation from opposing counsels of matters of fact. A certain amount of conjuring is done here, to persuade a judge either that there is absolute certainty on a particular issue, or that there is absolute uncertainty. Both counsels must juggle which facts they wish to bolster, which facts of the defense [common cause] they wish to use against the opposing case, and how best to discredit or otherwise make a mess of opposing argument, while making their own seem logical and consistent.  Although a guilty person may have certain truths playing against them, the fact is, a defense counsel has access to the accused, and thus is in possession of a much greater context of information, which can be used to poke holes in a prosecutor’s contentions and speculations.166c0444b5b64675be5959d39831c92c
  2. First strike. Advocate Susan Galloway will go first, presenting the state’s final closing arguments. These are likely to fill at least the morning session.  Going first has a few advantages. The state starts with a clean slate, and if their arguments are clear and vivid, they can powerfully shape and control the mindset no matter what comes afterward.
  3. How long will the arguments last? In the Pistorius case, Gerrie Nel’s closing arguments on August 8th, 2014 [about 18 months after the incident] lasted all day, until 15:00. Once the state was done, Barry Roux asked for an adjournment so he could marinade in the state’s contentions, and kick off with his own, perhaps slightly fine-tuned arguments the next morning. Even Oscar packed away his notebooks as a subtle nudge to indicate his preferences.  Judge Masipa consulted with court officials and then elected to sit for “another half hour.”  Roux’s closing arguments were thus broken into two segments, but effectively, he also got the last word.620x349rth
  4. Getting the last word, especially if one provides powerful insights, twists and turns right at the end, can and sometimes does change the outcome of case. Think of Johnny Chochrane’s famous closing: “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” So yes, a closing can discolor the original mindset portrayed by a prosecutor, and foist the all-important doubt onto a court that a defense must rely on to get their client off the hook. Expect Botha’s epilepsy narrative to feature strongly as their “game-changer”. weapons-750x458
  5. Closing arguments will not only summarize the respective cases, they also serve to highlight and emphasize the strongest points from each side. What do you think is the strongest aspect of Galloway’s case? Leave a comment and let’s see which aspects she chooses to emphasize. What’s the strongest element of Botha’s case? Does he even have a case? Leave a comment, and let’s see how evenly matched both counsels are.
  6. After closing arguments, court adjourns so the judge [there are no juries in South Africa] can apply his or her mind to the case. In the Pistorius case, the adjournment was for about a month. Arguments were heard on August 8th and 9th, and Masipa adjourned until September 11th. The verdict phase in the Pistorius case lasted two days, and shoddy as the original verdict from the court a quo was at the time, it was unanimous. Masipa and her two assessors inexplicably found Oscar not guilty of murder, premeditated or otherwise.
  7. After the verdict is it over?  Three months after Oscar was found guilty of culpable homicide and sentenced to a ridiculous 10 months imprisonment [effectively], the state applied for leave to appeal, and Masipa granted it. Judge’s usually grant appeals, although Masipa refused leave to appeal when the state applied after the second sentence – 6 years for murder – was seen to be too light as well. The state then applied directly to the Supreme Court of Appeal, who granted the appeal and directly elected to sentence Oscar themselves [to an effective 15 years, less time already served].

In the Van Breda case, I expect there to be an appeal after the verdict, which suggests that although the Van Breda case appears to be over at the beginning of 2018, in fact, it’s likely to be a long period of legal struggle, in my view, for Henri.

Bear in mind that five years after Reeva Steenkamp’s murder, that case still hasn’t been concluded either. Oscar has appealed the Supreme Court’s sentence, to the Constitutional Court, and presently remains in legal limbo.  The state have filed opposing papers, and now the Constitutional Court must decide whether it’s willing to consider Oscar’s application. The Constitutional Court usually doesn’t involve itself in ordinary criminal cases.HenriBreda3

Only the mega rich have the resources to take their cases through the legal washer, and so it’s a matter of access to his enormous inheritance, whether Henri will follow the path pioneered by South Africa’s highest-profile convicted murderer yet.

Sidenote: Interestingly, on the five year anniversary of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder, no South Africans have made any documentaries, and no local reporters have written on the case at all since the Supreme Court of Appeal verdict in December 2017. In the Van Breda case, although three books were written, there’s been a vacuum of reporting on this case since the adjournment in November 2017. When it comes to trial reporting in South Africa, the media seem to have a season for reporting, and an off-season. South Africa is a unique case of a crime infested country that still needs to play catch-up to the true crime trends in other countries. 

An Excerpt from DIABLO: Henri Van Breda

From the chapter

Into Darkness

John Harrison: You should have let me sleep! ― Star Trek Into Darkness


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Exactly twenty minutes into the court session after lunch, Henri’s advocate draws another line through his checklist, and wraps up his direct examination.

BOTHA:  Did you kill your father with an axe?

The accused casts towards his Judge, and his lips seem to curl involuntarily as he wrestles them into a single, softly spoken word.


BOTHA: And did you kill your brother with an axe?


As Henri answers his advocate on these direct and dire accusations, something sinister has happened to his posture. There’s a dark look in his eyes. From the fig-leaf position, a classic defensive posture which he’s maintained throughout the day while standing, often pressing down on his right hand with his left, now suddenly his demeanour has transformed into something else. Henri looms in his grey suit, both arms brace the side of the dock in a kind of casual menace. He’s spread out, almost like wings, or the ears of Dumbo the elephant.

Having answered the second question, Henri briefly glances from the Judge to the quivering, key-tapping media gallery on the opposite end of the room. And then to his advocate.

BOTHA: Did you kill your mother with an axe?


BOTHA: Did you attack your sister with an axe?

HENRI [Mouth gaping]: No. [Henri almost seems to sigh as he answers that one.]

Look carefully and in each of the four ‘no’s’, Henri answers open-eyed while looking at the Judge, but in each case, blinks moments later.  So it’s no…BLINK, no…BLINK, no…BLINK, no…BLINK.

BOTHA: Did you change the crime scene in any way…?

HENRI [Shakes his head]: No, my Lord.

The throwing of the axe, and the hitting of the axe into the wall, is an incidental way of explaining away the absence of blood, touch DNA and tissue DNA on the leading edge of the implement, and fibres and fingerprints on the haft, throat and grip.

Just as we saw in the JonBenét Ramsey case, in a genuine kidnapping, one would expect to find the fingerprints of the parents’ on the Ransom Note. Didn’t they pick it up and read it?  Or if they wrote the note themselves, were they extra careful not to leave any traces of handling it?

In the same way, we’d expect to find Henri’s fingerprints on the axe based on his version of handling the axe.  This absence shows, perhaps, that in his care not to make a mistake, just as in the Ramsey’s case, he was too careful.

BOTHA: Did you have any reason to attack your family?

HENRI [Seemingly aghast]: No, none whatsoever.

It’s difficult to make out on the livestream, but Henri either glances down or blinks as he says the word “none”.  But Botha’s not quite done.  There are three additional cards he wants to put on the table.

1st Card: No Clean-Up

BOTHA: Did you attempt to wash away any blood on your hands, or body, through the course of that morning?

HENRI: No, my Lord.

Henri’s suddenly deferential again.  In the entire court transcript for October 31st …


The first installment of DIABLO is available now on Amazon

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