Judges clear Hilton Shaw of wife murder after appeal

2011-07-20 00:00

TWO years after Fort Nottingham resident Hilton Shaw (59) was found guilty of murdering his wife, Susan, by shooting her while they were alone at home on June 3, 2007, three KwaZulu-Natal judges yesterday overturned the conviction and ruled it was a “real possibility” that Susan Shaw committed suicide.

Through his attorney, Petrus Coetzee, Shaw declined to comment in the wake of yesterday’s reserved judgment handed down by Judge Dhaya Pillay, KZN deputy judge president Chiman Patel and Judge Graham Lopes.

Trial Judge Vivienne Niles-Duner found that Susan Shaw’s shooting herself once in the shoulder did not signal a suicidal intention. She also rejected the theory that an intruder could have killed her and ruled that the only reasonable inference was that Hilton Shaw shot her. She found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to 12 years’ imprisonment.

The appeal court agreed that the intruder theory was “weak” as nothing was missing from the house, not even the firearm used to shoot Shaw, and said the “gruelling terrain” in the area also counted against the theory.

However, the appeal judges found suicide was a possibility, especially as Shaw had twice before tried to kill herself. They said it followed therefore that there was reasonable doubt that Hilton Shaw had shot his wife.

In a written judgment Judge Pillay said it was an open question whether Susan Shaw really intended to end her life that day.

“As with her two previous suicide attempts, when the appellant [Hilton Shaw] rescued her, she knew that he would return soon to save her.”

Judge Pillay said Susan Shaw had attempted suicide twice before by overdosing herself with tablets, had consulted a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist and suffered from depression. Although she was no longer on medication at the time, her condition had been serious enough for her to have received medication and professional treatment.

On that afternoon she’d also been menstruating and was in pain and “could have been more emotional than usual”. She also had an unusually high tolerance for or abused alcohol, which also suggested emotional and psychological instability, the appeal court found.

Judge Pillay said that although she would have found it awkward to shoot herself in the right shoulde, it was not impossible, especially if she had used both thumbs to pull the trigger. “The angle and direction of the shot did not exclude suicide,” the judge said.

The court was also told tht Susan Shaw was highly intoxicated.

Judge Pillay said experts on ballistics and pathology who gave evidence did not know Susan Shaw, did not know that she had twice attempted suicide or that Hilton Shaw saved her on both occasions. If they had they might have drawn other inferences or “been less convinced that she did not commit suicide”.

“Ultimately the experts could neither exclude the possibility of suicide nor point to the appellant as the murderer,” said Judge Pillay.

“She was a mother of two teenage sons from whom she was unhappily separated. Anxiety, perhaps even guilt, could have contributed to her distress. Her conflict with Mrs [Felicity] Smith [her ex-mother-in-law] ran deep, especially as it related to her children.”

According to evidence at the trial, Susan Shaw argued with Smith on the Thursday before she died and that Sunday afternoon again raised the issue with her husband. Hilton Shaw testified that he told her that if she wanted to go back to town to start life again and look after her children she would have his blessing. Just before he drove off to check SMS messages on his cellphone she got up from the bar stool where she was sitting, hugged and kissed him and told him she “loved him very much and was not going anywhere without him”, he said.

On his return 10 or 15 minutes later he found his wife lying face down on the verandah and turning her round he saw she had a bullet wound in her right shoulder. He instantly thought she had “tried to do something to herself”.

Judge Pillay said that other than a “vague insinuation” that Hilton Shaw abused his wife, the state led no evidence to support the proposition or canvas any other motive for the killing.

The appeal court further ruled that the observations of distant neighbours, Simon Madlala and Dorris Ndlovu, were unreliable and was critical of the quality of the police investigation in the case.

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