Courtney Pieters' murder was 'vicious, brutal, inhumane’ – judge's damning verdict

2018-11-07 15:47
Mortimer Saunders during his trial at the Western Cape High Court. (Jaco Marais/Gallo Images)

Mortimer Saunders during his trial at the Western Cape High Court. (Jaco Marais/Gallo Images)

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Mortimer Saunders' behaviour in the rape and murder of three-year-old Courtney Pieters was "vicious, brutal, inhumane and ruthless", Judge Babalwa Pearl Mantame said in the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday.

Mantame found Saunders guilty of the premeditated murder and rape of Courtney, whose decomposing body was found in Epping Industrial area near her home in Elsies River.

Mantame rejected Saunders’ version and found that he had ulterior motives.

In his plea statement, Saunders confessed to the murder. However, he claimed that he had not raped the little girl while she was alive and that he had only used his fingers to penetrate her.

He had said he intended to make Courtney sick because he had ill feelings towards her mother, Juanita Pieters, and gave her ant poison before hitting her on the head and strangling her with a towel.

READ: Mortimer Saunders found guilty of rape, murder of 3-year-old Courtney Pieters

He was irritated because she wanted to watch TV in his room when he wanted to sleep, he said.

"Ill feelings are not a valid reason for rape and murder. Based on the accused’s statement, the accused always had intentions to get back at the mother," Mantame said, with reference Saunders’ purchase of the ant poison eight months prior to the murder.

Saunders lived with the family because of an arrangement made with his friend - Courtney’s father, Aaron.

"If the intention was to get back at the mother, why harm a child who is also your friend’s daughter?" questioned the judge.

Courtney 'went through torture'

Mantame also pointed out that various witnesses who lived in the home and investigating officer Captain Shaun Taylor had said that there was no ant problem in the home.

The high poison content in Courtney’s blood, in addition to the above reasons, led the court to infer that Saunders had intended to kill her.

"This required planning – the procurement of the poison, he waited for an opportune time to do it when there were no adults in the home, he went outside to mix the poison, gave it to the deceased, threatened her with violence when she would not drink it, choked her, hit her with an open hand and strangled her with a towel," Mantame said.

"What the deceased went through in those moments was painful. The deceased went through torture."

The court found that Saunders had sufficient time to "stop his evil inclinations".

The ant poison was slow-acting and reversible, meaning that Saunders could have called for medical assistance and the little girl would still be alive.

"The accused made a point to carry the plan through. It is not necessary for the accused to have planned for a long period of time, even a few minutes would have been sufficient," she said.

"The circumstances and the nature are other factors, which show that the premeditated actions were achieved."

Mother cleared of negligence charge

Pieters’ mother Juanita was granted immunity for a charge relating to child neglect, and was discharged.

Mantame said that Juanita had left her two children at home alone as her economic status required her to work during the day, and she could not afford child care.

The mother had left her children in Saunders’ care, as they had established a relationship of trust.

"The accused was present, not a stranger, and he was part of the family unit," Mantame said.

Saunders and Courtney’s father were friends and his daughter would occasionally play with the toddler.

Following the judgment, Juanita Pieters angrily walked out of the court and refused to speak with the media.

Mantame took issue with the expert evidence given by defence pathologist Dr Segeran Naidoo regarding the charge of rape.

Naidoo had testified that the injuries could be attributed to decomposition. State pathologist Professor Johan Dempers, however, had testified that the injuries appeared to be consistent with sexual abuse.

Defence downplayed Courtney’s injuries

Mantame held that the defence had downplayed Courtney’s injuries and that Naidoo had tailored his expert evidence to fit the accused’s case.

Naidoo said that the fissures he had identified in his initial report, were actually the fold of the vaginal wall.

Dempers testified that the lacerations on Courtney’s genitals could have been cause by fingers, and could not conclusively say that the injuries were caused by penile penetration.

He said that if Courtney had been raped, it happened post-mortem.

Dempers said that the semen found on the vaginal swab could have been transmitted by the fingers, anally, or by penile penetration.

Mantame found that the semen could only have belonged to Saunders, as he was the last person to see Courtney, and that he was the one who had raped her.

"To use the words of Professor Dempers, fingers cannot ejaculate. The court rejects that the accused penetrated the deceased with his fingers," she said.

Saunders is expected to reappear on December 4 for pre-sentencing proceedings.

Read more on:    courtney pieters  |  mortimer saunders  |  cape town  |  courts  |  sexual abuse

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