Rohde murder trial: Expert under fire over 'battered woman syndrome' comment

Jason Rohde leaves the Western Cape High Court. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)
Jason Rohde leaves the Western Cape High Court. (Jenna Etheridge, News24)

Cape Town - The government pathologist who suggested that Bryanston mom Susan Rohde may have been a victim of "battered woman syndrome" came in for a severe tongue lashing by the defence in the Western Cape High Court murder trial of her husband Jason on Wednesday.

Advocate Graham Van der Spuy started off gently by apologising to Dr Akmal Coetzee-Khan for his poor knowledge of medical terms and begged his indulgence over his apparently poor medical vocabulary.

However, it quickly became clear that Van der Spuy's slightly shambolic introduction concealed a sharp bite.

Autopsy report

Within minutes, he was demanding the written notes of Coetzee-Khan's last 10 autopsies, waving photocopied notes of Susan Rohde's autopsy and demanding apparently missing pages and also pushing to see Coetzee-Khan's logbook of previous cases, even if they were unrelated to the trial.

He wanted a list of any "grey areas" Coetzee-Khan thought there might still be in the autopsy he conducted by Thursday morning.

He also wanted to know the exact type and size of paper that Coetzee-Khan wrote his notes on.

"It had faint blue lines, with a red margin," Khan replied, slightly perplexed.

Van der Spuy even questioned how he had managed to write his autopsy report so neatly while gloved up during the autopsy on the mother of two's body.

It subsequently emerged that Coetzee-Khan kept a towel nearby to wipe his gloved hands to write and then continue with the autopsy.

The defence lawyer complained that Coetzee-Khan had allegedly cast aspersions on private pathologist Dr Reggie Perumal.

Perumal was hired by the defence to conduct its own autopsy, but Coetzee-Khan had criticised Perumal's report saying information was missing.

While this exchange continued, Rohde sat dwarfed by the massive wooden dock he was alone in, with the door he claimed his wife hanged herself from, propped against the wall next to him.

Resuscitation efforts

Susan Rohde was found dead in the suite she and her property mogul husband stayed in at the glamorous Spier wine estate in the Stellenbosch area on July 24.

Rohde, the former CEO of Geffen International Realty Franchises, and Susan were at the estate for the company's annual conference.

According to the history provided to Coetzee-Khan, the couple argued and then she allegedly locked herself in the bathroom. Jason Rohde called maintenance to help open the door and they found she had hanged herself with the cord of an electric curling iron from a hook on the back of the bathroom door. 

Her body was taken down, and in spite of resuscitation efforts, she was declared dead.

Coetzee-Khan was the stand-by pathologist for the weekend she died and it was thus up to him to examine her body and establish a cause of death.

He said that he has done between 60 to 70 autopsies, usually for police who wanted to confirm a time of death.

But during his autopsy of Susan's body, he observed a few peculiarities which did not fit in with the theory that she had hanged herself.

Coetzee-Khan concluded that her death was unnatural, and consistent with manual strangulation and external airway obstruction. He believed the ligature imprint on her neck happened after she died.

But he also added an unexpected observation during his evidence - that she may have been the victim of "battered woman syndrome" because of an old bruise he found on her thigh.

He said on Wednesday that the syndrome could be physicial or emotional, but physically, the tell-tale signs were bruises in hidden places like the inner thigh, or the breast where other people could not see it.

Coetzee-Khan stuck to his theory that Susan was a victim of the syndrome, and said that he had to consider it once he saw the tell-tale signs.

But Van der Spuy rounded on him, demanding to know if he had any qualifications in psychiatry.

''Nothing. Except my medical degree which requires you to know psychiatry".

The trial continues at 09:30 on Thursday. Rohde remains out on bail.

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