Does the law protect us against psychopaths?

Sutterstock: Man with a knife
Sutterstock: Man with a knife
Until 1993 the legal system didn’t make provision for psychopaths to be locked up indefinitely, but the law was changed as a direct result of the tragedy that occurred when convicted rapist Screwdriver van der Merwe went on a killing rampage 17 years after his first violent assaults.

Between September and November 1971, the "Screwdriver Rapist” raped at least nine women. William van der Merwe often used the same modus operandi: he would dress in white overalls and visit women’s homes, claiming to be an electrician.

He also raped a pretty 14-year-old schoolgirl after gagging her and threatening her with a screwdriver. His behaviour was typically psychopathic; he planned carefully, lied convincingly and got his sexual gratification through violent means.

Once apprehended and in police custody van der Merwe cooperated fully with the authorities and was sent to Sterkfontein mental hospital for 28 days’ observation. He was pronounced fit to stand trial.

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Mr Justice JH Steyn, who presided over the trial, said, “This is one of the grimmest cases of rape I've known in 15 years on the Bench. A young and very attractive girl – a virgin until she was ravaged by van der Merwe . . . This is the kind of person I'm going to protect.”On 22 March 1972 he pronounced the death sentence, which was subsequently commuted to 20 years in prison by the Appeal Court.

Pronounced cured

For the next 15 years Van der Merwe was locked away in prison. He underwent a rehabilitation programme and received drug therapy. In the controlled environment of the prisons psychiatric hospital there were obviously no triggers. His criminal options were greatly reduced and he appeared normal. He passed all evaluations with flying colours and was pronounced “cured”.

This was a tragic mistake. A psychopaths wiring can’t be changed. The mere fact he cooperated and behaved properly shows how ruthless, charming, cunning and manipulative psychopaths can be.

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Van der  Merwe’s story doesn't end there. In March 1987 he was granted parole and released from Zonderwater Prison in Pretoria. Less than two years later two young women were hitchhiking to Tamboerskloof in Cape Town after a day at Muizenberg beach. They were picked up in Main Road, Tokai, by Van der Merwe.

It later turned out he had three sets of handcuffs and 29 screwdrivers in a toolbox in the back of his bakkie – he was prepared in case the opportunity for wrongdoing presented itself.

Van der Merwe drove to a deserted part of Constantia forest where he raped one of the girls. Afterwards he turned on the charm, giving both girls cigarettes and promising not to harm them. This turned out to be a blatant lie.

1 in 20 rapists convicted in SA

Stabbed to death

Shortly thereafter he forced them back into the bakkie and drove to Grabouw forest about 60 km outside Cape Town. He got undressed, raped the second girl in front of her friend and made her walk with him into the bushes.

The other girl’s feet were tied together and her hands cuffed behind her back. Looking around she saw his trousers and got hold of his gun. Although she’d never handled a gun before she managed to cock it and waited until she heard his footsteps. He was alone. She saw a knife in his hand. The police later found her friend lying nearby in a pool of her own blood – she’d been stabbed to death.

Stabbed at school

As Van der Merwe came around the back of the vehicle the captive girl rolled onto her side and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit him in the head. She fired another shot, this time hitting him in the shoulder. Finding a knife in the van she cut the ropes around her ankles and made her way to a nearby road.

A passing motorist took her to a police station. The Screwdriver Rapist died a few hours later in hospital without regaining consciousness.

It was an alarming thought that a dangerous maniac, a habitual criminal, could be released from prison 15 years after being sentenced to death for a series of horrendous crimes.

In South Africa a life sentence is 20 years, unlike in the US where such a sentence means 99 years. Parole is often granted halfway and if the criminal is well-behaved he can get his sentence reduced by a third. To bypass this anomaly judges often pronounce two sentences – for example, for rape and for murder — that don't run concurrently.

Rehabilitation programme

The high-profile trial of Screwdriver van der Merwe prompted amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act in 1993 following recommendations by the Booysen Commission of Inquiry. Sections 286 A and 286 B state that if the court is satisfied the person represents a danger to the physical or mental wellbeing of others and if the community should be protected against him or her, the court must declare the individual a dangerous criminal.

Predicting criminal behaviour

The court must then impose imprisonment or an indefinite period and direct that the person be brought before the court on the expiration of a specified period. It’s extremely difficult to probe a criminals mind and it's not yet possible to establish methods to determine whether a rehabilitation programme has been successful or not.

There’s also no concrete proof a psychopath can be cured at all. This means, Watkins says, the public is entitled to demand protective measures such as a paedophile register. In the past such appeals have been met with the objection that it is an invasion of privacy but in future South Africans may be granted this protection.

”Surely, ”Watkins says, ”we have the right to know when these offenders will be released, who they are and whether they’ll be living on our street."

Read more:
Inside the mind of a monster
Who psychopaths really are 
Does the law protect us against psychopaths

Reviewed by Professor Tuviah Zabow, former head of forensic psychiatry at the University of Cape Town and Valkenberg Hospital. 

By Romi Boom

Image: Man with a knife from Shutterstock

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