Laws of physics suspended - prosecutor in Angy Peter trial

| Adam Armstrong
Police vehicle parked outside the Cape High Court, where the trial of Angy Peter and others is ongoing. Photo by Adam Armstrong.

Forensic specialist Dr David Klatzow testified yesterday in the Angy Peter murder trial. The court is currently hearing a “trial-within-a-trial” which will determine whether it was possible for the murdered man, Rowan du Preez, to have made his dying declaration, as the state alleges.

Peter and her co-accused, husband Isaac Mbadu, Azola Dayimani and Christopher Dina are being tried in the Cape High Court for the kidnapping and murder of du Preez. Du Preez died after being necklaced in October 2012. He suffered burns to his entire body and died in hospital roughly 20 hours after the incident.

Three police officers who responded to the scene claim that du Preez named Angy Peter and her husband as his assailants in a dying declaration.

Klatzow, a witness for the defence, gave expert testimony on blood-alcohol metabolisation as well as the speed at which tires burn.

Klatzow submitted that du Preez had drunk a substantial amount of alcohol, possibly to the point that could be life-threatening. He said it was unlikely du Preez was able to speak clearly or act normally at the time of the assault.

The state’s version of events, supported by testimony submitted by du Preez’s aunt and grandfather is that du Preez was drinking between 2 and 6pm at a function at his family’s home. His family members testified that he was quite sober, and at 8pm walked some of the guests home.

The family members also stated that du Preez had shared a five-litre container of traditional beer with “a number of people” at the function, though this number was unclear. The prosecutor, Phistus Pelesa, argued that because he had shared the alcohol, it was unlikely that du Preez had consumed a lot, and that he was reported to be sober by 8pm.

Klatzow said if this was the case, he would expect that du Preez’s blood-alcohol level at the post-mortem would be zero, as roughly 26 hours had elapsed from the time he stopped drinking until he died.

He said that if du Preez had stopped drinking just before the assault, this would have placed his blood-alcohol roughly between 0.25 to 0.29. If he had stopped drinking at 6pm, then his blood-alcohol would have had to have been higher, for it to be 0.01 at the time of post-mortem. Klatzow stated it may have been as high as 0.36, which he stated is high enough to be threatening to one’s health.

Klatzow stated that both alcohol and shock contribute to impaired cognitive function, though he said he was unable to state how impaired cognitive function would be as that is not his area of specialisation.

He did state however that “it would have been a miracle had this patient not been in shock.” Klatzow expected that he would be in severe shock, following the assault in which his entire body was burnt and his lips and face were charred.

Klatzow explained that du Preez was most likely doused with a small amount of petrol, had a tire placed on him or around his waist and was then set alight.

In dispute is whether du Preez was able to speak well enough after the assault to identify himself and his assailants to the police attending the crime scene. In the post-mortem report it was indicated that du Preez sustained burns to his pharynx and oesophagus, but du Preez’s tongue was not mentioned as injured.

Klatzow stated that it is physically impossible for the oesophagus to be burnt and not the tongue. He explained that du Preez had inhaled hot gases, and probably flames, that were at least 500 degrees centigrade. These passed through the mouth and down to the throat, resulting in the burns to his oesophagus.

Prosecutor Pelesa stated that Klatzow was incorrect and contradicting the post-mortem report. Klatzow responded that the “pathologist must have missed the tongue damage. It is physically impossible for the hot air to pass the tongue, burn the pharynx, oesophagus and lips, and not burn the tongue.”

Klatzow noted that the post-mortem made no mention of a section cut from the tongue for a microscopic exam, and concluded that based on this, the post-mortem report was incomplete.

Pelesa responded, “these are the peculiar facts of this case”, and that “sometimes things happen in nature that are inexplicable.”

Klatzow asked Pelesa if he was suggesting a suspension of the laws of physics. Pelesa responded that sometimes nature does that. Klatzow said, “It doesn’t happen that way.”

Pelesa then quoted Isaac Newton, “For every action, there is a reaction.”

Klatzow, who is a biochemist, interjected and said to the judge that in fact the prosecutor was incorrectly quoting Newton’s Third Law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), but that he could not see the relevance of that particular law in this instance.

Pelesa then explained his understanding of events, using the wind or weather as possible explanations for the burns in the throat, but not on the tongue. “Doesn’t it make sense?” he asked.

“No, it doesn’t,” responded Klatzow.

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