Cape Town – It was unlikely that Henri van Breda would be able to concoct a story of what transpired in his family's luxury home the night his parents and brother were hacked to death if he had suffered an epileptic seizure, a neurologist testified in the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday.
Defence lawyer Advocate Pieter Botha asked his expert Dr James Butler if the triple murder accused could have fabricated a coherent, lucid version of events to police, which mostly remained consistent.
Earlier this month Butler diagnosed Van Breda with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy after the 23-year-old said he had suffered a seizure while at home with his girlfriend.
He said if Van Breda had suffered a seizure the day of the murders as suspected, it was not likely that he would be able to give a consistent fabrication of events as it would involve a working and functioning memory and involve elaborate planning.
While it was possible that the accused had hatched a plan well in advance, his postictal state – an altered state of consciousness after a seizure – wouldn't have allowed him to stick to it.
Van Breda claimed to have been unconscious for two hours and 40 minutes following the attack. He phoned emergency services after he apparently came to.
'Compelling' evidence of seizure
Butler said without a witness, it was impossible to know how long his seizure lasted or how much of the designated time represented a postictal state, which does not end when a person rouses.
He testified that compelling evidence of an epileptic seizure made malingering – faking the illness – as the cause of the amnesic period so unlikely that the possibility could effectively be disregarded.
Dr James Butler, neurologist, and advocate Pieter Botha, Henri van Breda's legal representator. (Adrian de Kock, Netwerk24)
Butler said signs that Van Breda was in a postictal state included dark rings under his eyes, a bruise on his forehead and looking considerably "dull" in photos taken of him in the ambulance that morning.
He also mentioned that urine was found on Van Breda's shorts – a possible sign that he had wet himself. The bladder contracts and may result in urination during a seizure.
This state – which slows down processing speed and ability to strategise as a result of impaired cognitive function – could also explain why Van Breda was "inappropriately calm and lacking in urgency, given the gravity of the circumstances", and lacked knowledge about his family's status.
Symptoms allegedly common
During cross-examination, the State listed a number of epilepsy symptoms easily found on the internet, pointing out Van Breda could have searched for them online himself.
Advocate Susan Galloway also pointed out that the diagnosis that he had suffered a seizure was based on information given by Van Breda, emphasising that it was circumstantial.
When asked why he wouldn't mention this seizure to a doctor on the day of the murders, Butler pointed out that a malingerer would have drawn attention to it.
The neurologist also testified that he had seen hundreds of instances where patients had seizures and postictal episodes lasting such long periods.
Van Breda pleaded not guilty to axing his parents – Teresa and Martin – and brother Rudi to death, seriously injuring his sister, Marli, and defeating the ends of justice.
The trial continues on Wednesday.