The mammoth trial of 23-year-old triple murder accused Henri Van Breda is finally drawing to a close and was postponed in the Western Cape High Court on Wednesday after the defence closed its case…
Judge Siraj Desai postponed the trial, which has spanned 63 days, to February 12 to give the state and defence time to prepare arguments in what he described as a “complicated case”.
Neurologist Dr James Butler finished his testimony adamant that in his opinion malingering (or feigning illness) in this case was highly unlikely and that a diagnosis of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy was without doubt.
As the final defence witness, Butler was called to testify about Van Breda’s diagnosis of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy after he experienced a seizure on November 8 and was subsequently admitted to hospital for a weekend of tests.
Butler told the court that he believed Van Breda had a seizure on January 27, 2015, when his parents and older brother were murdered, and his sister seriously injured. He testified that a seizure and “postictal state” (in which the brain is dysfunctional) could account for the two hours and forty minute time lapse in Van Breda’s timeline of events.
Van Breda claims an intruder armed with an axe and a knife, and wearing dark clothing, a balaclava, and gloves, was behind the attacks. He said in his plea explanation that during the pursuit of the attacker he lost his footing and fell down the stairs. “I do not know what made me fall, but my fall was quite severe.”
After the attacker fled, and after trying to phone his girlfriend without success, the accused said he went up the stairs, where he could hear his brother Rudi in the bedroom. On the middle landing towards the top, he saw his sister Marli moving.
“I then lost consciousness. I am unsure whether this was due to shock or to the injuries that I sustained when I fell down the stairs, or a combination of both.”
Butler told the court earlier this week that the time lapse, which Van Breda claimed was the time he was unconscious before contacting emergency services, was not just amnesia
“For him to lie there for two hours and forty minutes means it’s more than amnesia. That could be a seizure of two minutes and then a severe postictal period. Or it could be a long seizure of up to forty minutes and then the rest of the time was the postictal period.”
He also testified that the lack of urgency in Van Breda’s voice when he contacted emergency services could have been as a result of him being in a postictal state. “People are slow, sluggish and dull”.
“He told me he felt disorientated afterwards. He said his memory was fragmented and gradually improved.”
Butler said postictal delirium typically lasts for hours and sometimes days.
On Wednesday, he said that in the two previous instances he believes Van Breda had seizures, one in February 2016, when he was discussing the case with his girlfriend.
“The relevance is the stress issue. Stress provoked it.”
Judge Desai pointed out that in this case the diagnosis was made two and a half years after his first seizure in January 2015, “in the middle of a trial, that is highly controversial and charged”.
This, he said, made the diagnosis difficult, but Butler insisted he had been circumspect and was as “certain as ever” about his diagnosis.
“You have to be a careful detective in inferring what happened in the past,” he told the court.
Senior state prosecutor Susan Galloway questioned why, if van Breda had an epileptic fit and passed out on the stairs for nearly three hours, he did not inform the doctor who examined him after the attack.
She also questioned whether Van Breda would have been able to inflict injuries on himself in a postictal state. She pointed out that two doctors had testified that his injuries were self-inflicted.
“I would think that would occur before the seizure when the brain was still functioning well,” Butler told the court.
Galloway said Van Breda had an explanation for the time lapse of two hours and 40 minutes. “Up until you testified, the accused had an explanation that it could have been a severe fall, then seeing his mother and sister and that shock caused him to lose consciousness. Now, that you come into the picture, the explanation is epilepsy.”