Defence in Rohde case draws on death of Steve Biko in 'paid' autopsy argument

2017-11-28 21:05
Forensic pathologist Dr Deidre Abrahams. (Jenni Evans, News24)

Forensic pathologist Dr Deidre Abrahams. (Jenni Evans, News24)

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Cape Town – One of the defence lawyers in property mogul Jason Rohde's murder trial drew on the death of Black Consciousness icon Steve Biko to illustrate his view on the importance of a second autopsy if a cause of death is disputed.

"The history of this country – the so-called dark ages before the 1990s – is peppered with miscarriages of justice," Advocate Graham Van der Spuy said in the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday.

AS IT HAPPENED: #Rohde defence continues to discredit State pathologists' evidence pointing to manual strangulation

He was cross-examining Paarl chief state pathologist Dr Deidre Abrahams, who oversaw the autopsy on Rohde's wife Susan. The autopsy was conducted by Abrahams' junior Dr Akmal Coetzee-Khan.

Van der Spuy was visibly angered by Abrahams' contention that a second autopsy paid for by the defence in a murder case raises questions over impartiality, as the two thrashed it out over which autopsy carried the most weight.

At issue are differences in findings between the state autopsy and the private autopsy after Susan was found dead in a bathroom at Spier wine farm on July 24, 2016, with a cord mark around her neck.

The autopsy conducted by Coetzee-Khan, which Abrahams supports, concluded that Susan had died of manual strangulation and asphyxiation and that the ligature mark on her neck occurred after her death.

Murder and suicide

This led to Rohde being charged with murder and obstructing justice by staging a suicide. He has pleaded not guilty.

Dr Reggie Perumal was hired by the defence to conduct a second autopsy, and he concluded that there was evidence of death by hanging.

Van der Spuy said the case of the death in detention of Biko was a good example of why private autopsies were vital.

He said he was part of the apartheid-era SA Medical and Dental Council inquiry in 1985 which found Port Elizabeth district surgeons Benjamin Tucker and Ivor Lang guilty of improper conduct for their handling of the medical aspect of a gravely unwell Biko's detention.

He accused Abrahams of not understanding Rohde's constitutional right to defend himself by seeking an opinion other than the State's via expert witnesses, and even to pay for a second autopsy if necessary.

"On a daily basis, expert witnesses are engaged to advise and assist and sometimes testify on behalf of a party. Do you expect them to work for nothing?" asked Van der Spuy.

He said that Abrahams was accusing Perumal of tailoring his evidence to suit the person who paid him, and was particularly annoyed at her referring to Perumal's findings as "so-called".

Second autopsy at Dove's funeral services in Braamfontein

Van der Spuy said that if that argument held, then Abrahams herself could be questioned for being biased in favour of the State, which pays her salary as it prosecutes Rohde.

Abrahams stuck by her opinion that in terms of the Inquest Act, autopsies should be conducted by independently appointed pathologists.

If a second autopsy is requested, as was the case with Susan, this should be done via a request to a magistrate, and preferably conducted at an academic institution by an independent party.

The autopsy Perumal conducted on Susan took place at Dove's funeral services in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

Van der Spuy said a second autopsy that was performed on Biko, by Dr Jonathan Gluckman, was a private examination arranged by the Biko family.

The Gluckman autopsy is known to have confirmed that Biko died after sustaining severe head injuries, contrary to the security police's claim at the time that he had died of an extended hunger strike in prison in Port Elizabeth.

Lawyer warned over cross-examination

Van der Spuy said he was a junior on the team involved in the pro-forma prosecution of the doctors in the Biko case.

"That case would never have prevailed if Gluckman had not been appointed privately," said Van der Spuy.

Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe suddenly interrupted Van der Spuy and requested a meeting in her chambers with the entire legal team.

When court resumed, there was no more reference to Biko.

However, she warned Van der Spuy several times over his cross-examination of Abrahams, which at times included loudly demanding an answer.

At one point she threatened to report him to the bar council over the way he was handling the cross-examination, but he retorted that Abrahams was being "evasive".

On August 18, 1977, Biko was arrested at a police roadblock for his political activism and was kept in detention in Port Elizabeth by the apartheid police. In spite of alarming symptoms of a head injury, he was put in the back of a police van and driven to Pretoria, where he died in a prison cell on September 12, 1977.

Lang was found guilty of improper conduct for issuing an incorrect doctor's certificate, not keeping proper notes, and for failing to examine and observe Biko properly.

Tucker was found guilty of improper and disgraceful conduct for not objecting to Biko being transported to Pretoria in the back of a police van instead of an ambulance.

The trial continues on Wednesday.

Read more on:    susan rohde  |  jason rhode  |  cape town  |  crime

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