'I remind myself to appreciate what I have... life' - Cheslin Marsh ahead of judgment in Hannah Cornelius trial

2018-11-07 08:17
Cheslin Marsh is understood to have suffered severe head and body injuries. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

Cheslin Marsh is understood to have suffered severe head and body injuries. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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When Cheslin Marsh locked eyes with the men accused of stoning him and leaving him for dead, he felt raw terror, quickly averting his gaze as they stared him down from the dock of the Western Cape High Court.

"But this time I won't look away. I won't be scared," the 22-year-old waiter says ahead of judgment being delivered in the trial against Vernon Witbooi, Geraldo Parsons, Eben van Niekerk and Nashville Julius on Wednesday.

The four - charged with the brutal killing of Hannah Cornelius and the savage attack on Marsh which left him with serious head injuries and deaf in his one ear - face charges of murder, rape and robbery.

READ: Hannah Cornelius' family raising funds for friend Cheslin Marsh's hearing aid

Marsh, arguably the State's most important witness, in October gave damning evidence against the accused, recounting the night that they were hijacked while they sat and chatted in Cornelius' blue Golf after a night out.

"When they looked at me in court, I knew they were thinking that they should have checked that I was dead when they left me there that night," Marsh recalls.

He was in the witness stand for three days, tearfully testifying about the night that changed his life.

Marsh had met Cornelius through mutual friends three months prior to their ordeal.

'I was numb and terrified as we walked into the field'

In the early hours of May 27, 2017, the theology student had walked Cornelius back to the Irene Ladies' Residence. She had insisted on driving him back to his flat, despite him insisting he wanted to ride his longboard home.

READ: Inconsolable friend unable to testify further as he recounts hell ride that led to Hannah Cornelius’ murder

The two had been chatting in the car when Marsh saw a hand wielding a screwdriver come through the window, pointed straight at Cornelius' chest.

The man's accomplices entered the car and frisked them, before three of the four drove off with the two students. The driver promised to return Cornelius' blue Golf because they "just wanted to go home".

"Hannah always saw the good in everyone," Marsh says, staring off into the distance. "She probably believed them when they said they were going to let us go and give back the car."

His most vivid recollection is of their attackers forcing him into the boot of the stolen car on the Helshoogte Pass, and later of him being allowed out and being made to walk to an open field near Bernadino Heights in Kraaifontein, where two of their assailants would try to murder him.

"It was so dark - I think what made things worse was that I couldn't see what was happening. When they were leading me away from the car, I looked at Hannah. I couldn't see her clearly, but I think she had also been looking my way. That was the last time I saw her.

"I was numb and terrified as we walked into the field. I thought they were going to beat me up and leave me there, tied to a tree or something. I didn't know they were going to try and kill me."

READ: Hannah Cornelius stabbed because she refused to get out of her car boot - accused (WARNING: GRAPHIC DETAILS)

'I will always remember her smile'

Marsh was forced to lie down before his attackers hurled bricks at his head until he lost consciousness.

"When I woke up, my first thought was to get help. But I was surrounded by trees and sand in the middle of nowhere. I walked in my socks because they had stolen my shoes - I remember feeling glass cutting my feet.

"I reached houses that were surrounded by high walls. I don't even know how I climbed over, but I did."

Marsh clambered into the backyard of Avral Fortuin, who saw the bloodied man outside his kitchen door that morning. Fortuin flagged down a passing police vehicle, which transported Marsh to a local health facility to be treated.

SEE: 'Don't be angry with me, please' – accused in letter to Hannah Cornelius' parents

He was later transported to Tygerberg Hospital, where a paramedic told him that Cornelius' body had been found.

"I never tried to find out the details of what happened. I thought it was better for me not to know."

He had been following the trial in the news, and couldn't find the words to explain his grief after learning how his friend was gang raped and killed on a Stellenbosch farm.

He thinks about her often, Marsh says, and hearing about what his once vibrant friend had endured sometimes reduces him to tears.

"She never thought about tomorrow. She wanted to live her life her way. She was outgoing and helpful. I will always remember her smile," Marsh says.

'I won't allow them to change me and who I am'

It was his pursuit for justice for his friend and himself that gave him the courage to testify through his tears and trauma, he says.

"I knew what I was there for. The more I looked at them, the less scared I felt. I needed to face them, look at their faces so that they wouldn't haunt me anymore. I did it for us, for closure."

Marsh spent a month in hospital after his ordeal, but says he is ready to resume his studies after dropping out of Stellenbosch University last year.

"My outlook on life has changed. I remind myself to appreciate what I have - life."

He is convinced the four will be convicted of all the charges they face, and that they will be handed the harshest possible sentence.

"A life sentence would be fitting," Marsh insists.

He has no interest in ever seeing his attackers again, and doesn't want an apology or "fake remorse".

"They have taught me that people can be heartless and evil. I won't ever forget that. But I will move on with my life, because I won't allow them to change me and who I am. They won't have that over me."

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