Newsmaker – Jeanette Traverso: When judges get judged

2014-12-14 21:00

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On Friday, Jeanette Traverso hung up her judge’s silk as the Western Cape High Court closed its doors for the festive holiday season.

Some people might argue that it’s a well-deserved break for the province’s deputy judge president – but to many South Africans, she’s the woman who let Shrien Dewani go free and deserves derision, not a holiday.

Traverso has found herself in the eye of a torrid storm after she dismissed the case against the British businessman on Monday.

He was accused of organising hit men to murder his wife, Anni, during their honeymoon in Cape Town in 2010.

Fuming detractors have accused Traverso of favouring Dewani’s defence team, headed by Advocate Francois van Zyl, at the expense of the prosecution, led by Advocate Adrian Mopp.

But forensic expert David Klatzow told City Press that Traverso’s ruling had been “faultless, 100% and spot-on”.

Klatzow, who has advised plaintiffs and defendants over the past 30 years, said the prosecution’s case had been “lacklustre and pear-shaped from the get-go”.

He blamed sloppy police work after the murder, particularly former police commissioner Bheki Cele’s decision to let Dewani leave the country three days after Anni’s death.

“Cele’s decision to let Shrien go just three days later was stupid and ridiculous,” said Klatzow.

“There was so much that had to be explained.

“A proper investigation then would have saved us this expensive prosecution and putting an innocent man through it all – assuming he is innocent, that is.”

Traverso’s blunt, no-nonsense manner in court didn’t endear her to some during the high-profile case.

During the Dewani trial, she frequently interrupted the prosecution with questions like: “But Advocate Mopp, what exactly do you mean?”

She often delivered pointed glances at the twittering public gallery overhead, prompting police officers to rapidly try and quieten the crowd.

The 68-year-old judge also refused to let the proceedings be filmed, in contrast with the Oscar Pistorius trial.

Despite the torrent of criticism her ruling had unleashed, Traverso appeared calm and steely-eyed in court on Monday.

She ordered Dewani to be found not guilty due to a lack of evidence.

“I’ve heard the Hindocha family’s plight, but I’ve taken an oath to uphold the rule of law.

“I can’t let public opinion influence my judgment,” she told the court.

But the public had tried. An online petition calling for Traverso to be axed from the case, and a retrial with a new judge, was dismissed by Justice Minister Michael Masutha.

Traverso has declined to be interviewed about the Dewani case.

On Friday, City Press peeked into her office on the first floor of the Western Cape High Court building. She was not at her desk.

Traverso’s secretary, Milly Matthews, took a message – but, unsurprisingly, Traverso did not respond.

Matthews looked tired. She was in the courtroom with Traverso for every day of the high-profile case, which kicked off on October 6.

Matthews chided: “You can’t just go into her office. The judge would be furious; she would be very, very angry.”

Other staff in the court say Traverso isn’t an iron lady.

Speaking anonymously, a security guard described her as kind and generous to people who approached her for help. He said she brought everyone at the court cake and sweet treats on her birthday in May.

Traverso was born to former National Party minister of community development Blaar Coetzee and actress Twinkle Hanekom, who starred in the 1949 Afrikaans film Sarie Marais.

As a youngster, Traverso veered left of her conservative upbringing. She studied law at Stellenbosch University, where her liberal politics rocked the intellectual bastion of apartheid.

Among other things, she co-founded a campus newspaper called Forum after she criticised the existing newspaper, Die Matie, for espousing only Christian nationalist principles.

Traverso is the first female acting judge president in the country. She has filled in for Judge President John Hlophe a number of times since being appointed deputy judge president of the Cape Bench in 2001.

The relationship between the two took a knock in 2004 when Hlophe accused Traverso of racism. He later apologised for the remark.

In 2011, her name made it into news headlines when she survived a freak accident.

She was knocked over by a golf cart driven by a Cape Town advocate while they played a round at the Royal Cape Golf Club. Traverso broke several bones and had to be placed in a medically induced coma, from which she made a full recovery.

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