Griekwastad: What SA law says about child killers

2014-05-14 00:00

THE murders of three members of the Steenkamp family on a Northern Cape farm near Griekwastad in April 2012 struck a particular chord with me. Farm murders are always horrific, pointless, terror-inducing crimes that resonate across boundaries of many sorts but this was one of the worst I had ever encountered. It also happened on my birthday, a day I have always vaingloriously considered pretty special and sacred, so it messed with the sanctity of that and thus piqued my interest even further.

Those of us watching on from the sidelines all initially assumed the triple murder was the work of a home invasion-style killer, a stranger on a quest for money and guns maybe or a disgruntled farm worker perhaps. But as time progressed the murders of Deon, Christel and Marthella took on an even more disturbing aspect when it became clear that their attacker was a juvenile, a 16-year-old boy known to the family, and that 14-year-old Marthella endured horrific injuries consistent with torture and had also been raped.

Author of The Griekwastad Murders – The crime that shook South Africa, Jacques Steenkamp, was involved in the case as a journalist with Witness sister newspaper Rapport and then later with the SABC. His book takes you behind the scenes of the news reports and interviews and gives an in-depth, detailed account of the facts that unfolded after young Don Steenkamp pitched up at the Griekwastad police station that night covered in blood, breaking the news that his mother, father and sister were all dead, murdered in a farm attack.

This is no easy book to read for those unaccustomed to the brutality of murders like this. The horror of the attack is described in all its disturbing detail, with post mortem results and court reports analysing the injuries of the dead laid bare. But having said that, the story that unfolds is riveting and the pages of the book fly by as the police investigation is detailed, along with the initial speculation that police had botched aspects of their investigations. The court proceedings are retold with added colour and in a way that the personalities of the attorneys, prosecutors and judges are revealed to some extent. The fact, however, remains that this is not meant to be an entertaining read or a story. It is real-life tragedy and complete non-fictional horror.

One of the most fascinating parts of the story Steenkamp tells is the exploration of whether the boy could be clinically classified as a psychopath; how he reacted to various aspects of the story; how he grinned when he heard the news of his arrest for the murders breaking on the radio and was then deadpan during parts of the trial describing the sickening injuries of the dead when one would expect him to be weeping or at least showing signs of being very distressed.

While the book is overall a good read, Steenkamp’s style is strange at times and he does odd things like point out the race of certain people when it’s not germane to the storyline at all. He also refers to women, professional colleagues, as “beautiful” or refers to their appearance, which is a bit creepy. I was also slightly peeved by the way he insinuates that he alone is the authoritative voice on the case, almost putting down the expertise of other very good journalists who covered the trial; it comes across as a bit mean-spirited. The book must have been rushed at the end to get it out on the shelves as fast as possible, and perhaps that, or the possibility that Steenkamp is writing in a second language, contributes to the jarring narrative style at times.

Even if you followed this trial as closely as I did at the time, the book really provides a good reminder of what happened. There were aspects of the case I had already forgotten and in providing context in anticipation of the boy’s sentencing, I found reading the book very helpful.

The sentencing of the juvenile who was found guilty of the murders, the rape of Marthella and the obstruction of justice is currently under way after he was convicted on March 27 this year. I for one, along with many others in this country, am bursting to hear what his sentence will be for these heinous deeds. He must be kept off our streets for a very long time.

Susan Erasmus

THERE are special rules governing children’s courts in which minors are tried. One of these is that the accused is not identified or photographed in public. A judge or a magistrate can decide which court proceedings are applicable to individual cases. The judge in the Griekwa­stad case indicated that the court sat as a children’s court.

Juveniles awaiting trial in adult prisons has been an issue for a long time in South Africa. According to the law this shouldn’t really happen, but there are not always sufficient juvenile facilities available. There are only 13 of these in the whole of South Africa.

The number of juveniles in adult prisons has been reduced significantly since the mid-nineties according to a report by Advocacy Aid. But the situation is still far from ideal.

Juvenile facilities

Another factor that influences decisions on children and incarceration is that children up to the age of 15 are legally required to have schooling. In many cases where unsentenced children are held in special sections of adult prisons, this simply does not happen. In fact, there are only three of these institutions that have classrooms.

The Child Justice Act of 2010 deals fully with many of these issues.

Here are some facts on children and serious crime in South Africa, and also some of the provision found in the act mentioned above.

• There are 13 youth correctional facilities (also called places of safety) in South Africa. The emphasis in these centres is supposed to be on education and rehabilitation.

• Children under 10 years of age may not be arrested as they are thought to lack criminal capacity. Children from 11 to 14 have criminal capacity and the onus to prove this rests on the state. A child over the age of 14 has criminal capacity unless the child can prove otherwise.

• If a child commits a crime at the age of 16 and is 18 by the time the case comes to court, he will still be tried as a child, but if sentenced, will be sent to an adult facility and not to a place of safety.

• When a child is tried for a serious offence, the court must obtain a pre-sentence report from a probation officer.

• Children who are first offenders are often not prosecuted for less serious offences.

• Children are often released into the care of parents or guardians rather than being put in places of safety. This is decided on the merits of individual cases.

• A child may be detained only as a measure of last resort for the shortest appropriate period of time.

• A child must be kept separately from other detained people who are over the age of 18, and never in cells containing both genders.

• Over 50% of children detained in prisons were charged or convicted of property offences in 1995 — a figure that dropped to 28% by 2010. That doesn’t mean the crime rate has gone down, but that the likelihood of a prison sentence for children has been reduced.

• Girls constituted only 1,5% of juveniles in custody in 2011.

• Aggressive and sexual crimes among juveniles have both shown a marked increase since 1995.

• If children are kept in normal prisons, they are supposed to be kept separately from adult prisoners, and there should be at least 3,344 square metres per child. At Pollsmoor Prison, the recorded space was 9,5 square metres per child.

• Many facilities, such as libraries and sportsfields, exist at adult prisons, but are not available for use to unsentenced children being kept in the facilities.

• The International Committee for the Red Cross recommends that there be a maximum of 20 inmates per toilet. Six of the 26 centres surveyed did not meet this standard — the worst being Johannesburg Centre, where there are 50 inmates per toilet.

• 85% of the staff who work in centres where unsentenced children are kept have received no training to work with children.

• The number of days a child has spent in prison must be deducted from a term of imprisonment once sentence has been passed.

• Unsentenced children and child offenders are supposed to have access to psychological services.

• If a child is kept in a juvenile detention centre, he/she can be transferred to an adult facility at the age of 18.

(Sources: childjustice.org;

justice.gov.za; communitylawcentre.org;africlaw.com) — News24.

The juvenile accused in the Griekwastad family murders, with his attorney, Willem Coetzee, attends a site inspection of the farm where the murders occurred during his trial in the Kimberely high court last year. He was convicted of the rape and murder of Marthella Steenkamp (14) and the murders of her parents Deon (44) and Christel (43) on their farm Naauwhoek on Good Friday, 2012.

The 17-year-old killer appears in the Kimberley high court for the Griekwastad farm murders.

PHOTOS: FILE - Emile Hendricks/Foto24

The teenager on the day Northern Cape Judge President Frans Kgomo handed down a guilty verdict at the Kimberley high court.

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