Three witnesses took to the stand today at the Van Breda triple murder trial, starting with the return of Colonel Stewart, who made headlines yesterday regarding his expert hair analysis.


Bad hair: unreliable analysis of samples at the scene

Smartly, the state elected not to ask any questions in re-examination after yesterday’s cross-examination. The defence led Colonel Stewart in questioning that divulged some new information, including that he used 11 out of 24 points of comparison to determine if there was a resemblance between hair samples taken from the crime scene.

Judge Desai had a lot of questions of his own for Colonel Stewart,  to clarify how certain Stewart’s analysis of hair specimens was. Judge Desai used the test of a fingerprint analysis as an example, telling Stewart that in such an analysis the expert could show the court 8 comparisons and to verify what had been concluded through an objective test. Stewart advised that the findings in hair analysis were subjective and Judge Desai proceeded to question the uncertainy of the test, asking if it could even be regarded as a science. While Stewart tried to convince the Judge that no science was exact but Judge Desai’s point seemed lost on Stewart.

As his testimony ended, Advocate Botha discovered during his final questioning of this expert witness that DNA samples had been conducted on some hairs found on the scene which still had roots. Advocate Botha noted, very importantly, that the state had not given the defence any DNA samples taken from hair specimens and had they done so, these two days of cross-examination would have been unnecessary.

It’s safe to assume that due to the lack of certainty of this type of forensic analysis as well as the contradictory evidence provided by this witness, whose testimony was based on a Section 212 affidavit, Judge Desai will apply little to no weight to this report.

I would hope, for state’s case, that they weren’t placing too much reliance on this witnesse’s evidence. I also think the State is going to need to provide good reason for leading subjective and uncertain evidence from an expert when DNA evidence would have been the more appropriate test to lead (provided it is shown to have been possible to use DNA, evidence to date indicates it was).

Another issue, which may become relevant in the context of the entire matter, is that this witness seemed to testify in a manner directed at advancing the state’s case and altering or concealing certain facts that weren’t useful to the state. If we start seeing a pattern of this from state witnesses, the state will have serious problems.


What The Neighbour Heard: Ms Op’t Hof

So far, we’ve heard evidence from security personnel that there were no noise complaints from neighbors that evening, however, this morning we heard there was a noise disturbance, according to the van Breda neighbor, Ms Op’t Hof, who told the court that on the evening of 26 January 2017 she put her kids to bed at 20h30 and then she started working. Ms Op’t Hof, an interior designer, had a lot of preparation to do that evening. She sat and worked in her dining room.

At around 10pm she testified that she heard loud, aggressive men’s voice’s which startled her and interrupted her work. She got up and looked around and could tell the direction it was coming from. Later, in her statement she told the police that it must have been from the van Breda home as it came from that direction, the house on the right was not occupied and in the house on the left lived quiet, elderly folk.

Ms Op’t Hof told the court that there was only glass between her and the van Breda home, that she had been sitting working alone with no television on. Her house was completely quiet and these noises unsettled her, and she hadn’t heard anything like it in the estate before. She testified that this arguing continued, while she carried on working, until she went to bed at 23h50.

When asked whether she went out to listen to the argument, or had reported it, Ms Op’t Hof said that she wasn’t the type to get involved. She could hear it was a serious argument, but believed it didn’t sound like an assault or something that needed security.

Ms Op’t Hof further testified that she then awoke before 4am from the sound of her two year old’s monitor ticking – indicating that he was awake – she then went to him and noticed he was wide awake and didn’t want to go back to sleep, so she took him back to bed with her. Furthermore, when she went to her own room, her older son (four years old at the time), who never stirred during the night, was in her room awake. She did not hear any noises at all from the van Breda house at that time.

The defence cross-examined Ms Op’t Hof, with the aim to get her to concede that one cannot tell the difference between a voice recording or an actual person speaking at that distance. Judge Desai interjected in Advocate Combrink’s cross, reminding Adv. Combrink that the witness had answered, her evidence was simple and suggested that he was trying to get her to speculate.

Advocate Combrink told her that his client was watching the movie Star Trek 2, Into the Darkness, around the time that Ms Op’t Hof heard these loud noises. Advocate Combrink then proceeded to try and get her to concede that she may have heard the movie, which the family was playing on their new surround sound system at that time.

Ms Op’t Hof dealt with this well by insisting that she heard men’s voices, they were definitely arguing, it startled her and she did not think that she may have been hearing a movie playing. A defiant Ms Op’t Hof, unsettled and confident, then told Advocate Combrink that he couldn’t tell her what she had heard, and that he wasn’t there nor did he didn’t get any experts to sit in her house and test sounds she may have heard. She reminded him that she didn’t choose to be involved and was only there because of what she had heard that night.

Advocate Combrink then told her that he has a statement from one of the neighbours, who has said that they did not hear any such noises that night. Ms Op’t Hof said she couldn’t comment.

In re-examination, the state’s Advocate Galloway asked quite a strong question – she asked if anyone had come and knocked on Op’t Hof’s door during that night or the following morning – the response was no. I don’t understand why Henri did not come and bang on our doors asking for help.

The defence noted that they will now protest her saying this, while Op’t Hof indicated that she had made up her mind about his client prior to testifying. I don’t believe that is what she meant but I am interested to hear their argument on this point.


The Emergency Call – Emergency Operator Janine Philander

“It was the weirdest thing for me how cool and calm he was, even offering to wait in another street to meet the ambulance”.

Finally, we briefly heard evidence from the emergency operator with whom Henri spoke for about 15 minutes at 07:12 am on the morning of the 27th of January.

The call from Henri stood out to her, and she told the court why in her testimony. When she received the call from Henri, he said he needed an ambulance and briefly explained what had happened. In her testimony, she said she thought he sounded hesitant and she thought she heard him giggle. She went on to explain that due to the way he sounded, she initially thought that the call was a prank and she noted they experience prank calls from time to time. She then said she retrieved details from him and that he was calm and co-operative. Philander noted that she receives on average 100 calls a day, and that when there is a house break in or assault, the caller would normally be persistent and frantic, and callers often say things like “you need to get them out of here now” or “people are dying get them help here now.” She often hears callers screaming, being emotional and forgetting their own personal contact details. She testified that this call from Henri lasted longer than normal, around 15 minutes, and that he stayed on the line the whole time, where most people in these situations drop calls. He didn’t get agitated, angry or put pressure on her, which often happens during calls of this nature.

We couldn’t hear the 15-minute call recording today as the sound quality was not ideal, as Advocate Botha pointed out. We will hear it tomorrow morning as Ms Philander continues with her evidence-in-chief.

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Photography K-Leigh Siebritz / HM Images

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