Respected pathologist who helped put away Henri van Breda, Mortimer Saunders succumbs to Covid-19

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Professor Johan Dempers. (Supplied)
Professor Johan Dempers. (Supplied)
  • Professor Johan Dempers, 51, died on Tuesday after being diagnosed with Covid-19 last month.
  • He helped the State secure convictions in high-profile cases, including the Van Breda murders and the killing of little Courtney Pieters, 3.
  • The respected pathologist was a father of two.

The man who played an essential role in providing evidence to convict axe murderer, Henri van Breda, and child killer, Mortimer Saunders, has died following a battle with Covid-19.

Professor Johan Dempers succumbed to the virus on Tuesday after being diagnosed on 21 December.

The father of two was 51 years old.

An animated and enthralling witness in high-profile cases, the head of the division of forensic medicine in the pathology department at Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences was instrumental in the conviction of a number of heinous criminals.

Western Cape senior advocate, Anthony Stephens SC, last consulted with Dempers during the preliminary stages of the De Zalze murders, for which Van Breda was handed three life sentences for the murders of his parents and brother, 15 years for the attempted murder of his sister and one year for obstructing the course of justice.

"One of the main planks of the prosecution's case was that the injuries the accused had suffered were self-inflicted and it fell to me to consult with Professor Dempers to test the cogency of this evidence," he recalled.

"Professor Dempers said during that consultation that it was a 'textbook' case of self-inflicted injuries and his explanations given to me were completely compelling. In my mind, it removed any possible doubt that the accused had, in fact, committed the murders and attempted murder on his family."

Advocate Susan Galloway led the prosecution to its inevitable end, with the conviction and sentencing of Van Breda three years ago.

ALSO READ | Henri van Breda loses third attempt to appeal conviction, sentence

"I had the privilege of knowing Prof Dempers – initially only as a name on post-mortem reports and a go-to person when an expert opinion is required," she said.

During the [Van Breda] trial, I got to know him personally. And… it was a privilege. His patient manner and soft-spoken tone hid a person of integrity and compassion. Highly intelligent and competent in his field, he was willing to go the extra mile to provide the best possible information. A humble man who passed before his time. He will be missed.

Stephens remembered Dempers as someone always willing to assist in providing objective expert opinion in a number of other matters in which the medical evidence was unclear.  

His evidence was always unassailable, he said.

Dempers also played a leading role in the trial of Mortimer Saunders, who was convicted of the premeditated murder of Courtney Pieters, 3. She disappeared from her home in May 2018 and, after a prolonged search, her body was found dumped in Epping Industria in Cape Town.

State advocate Esmeralda Cecil said that, during recess, Dempers had discussed his findings with his research panel at Tygerberg Hospital.

"With great dedication, he continued his research on decomposition and whether injuries were inflicted before or after death. As a result of his research and determination, a conviction was secured. This was an excellent example of his love and devotion for his work," she said.

"[He] was a very humble person. He believed in fairness and also had a passion for his work. He always went the extra mile to assist and provide medical input in respect of various criminal matters."

An integral part in the Western Cape government's Forensic Pathology Services (FPS) team, he embodied the ideal example as a mentor and teacher.

FPS director Vonita Thompson said:

Professor Dempers' passing has left a huge void, both from an academic and service delivery perspective. Colleagues are and will be struggling to come to terms with his untimely passing. He was part of the Forensic Pathology Service executive team and no meeting will be the same again.

Professor Lorna Martin, the head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at the University of Cape Town, said Dempers would be remembered as a "fierce forensic pathologist, discipline specific, honest and loyal to our profession, with the utmost integrity, an enthusiastic teacher and a consummate professional".

Professor Andrew Whitelaw, the head of the pathology department at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University, said while Dempers was probably best known for his active involvement in a number of medico-legal cases, they would remember him as a committed teacher to both undergraduate and postgraduate students, as well as a researcher, particularly in the field of death in infancy.

"His passing will be sorely felt in his division and in the broader Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences community. We are devastated by the loss of our friend and extraordinary colleague, who always had time for people."

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