Murder accused Shrien Dewani entered the Cape High Court yesterday to a soundtrack of whirring cameras, and as the exclusive focus of a determined pack of jostling journalists crammed into the wood-panelled courtroom. Later in the afternoon it was video footage of Anni’s lifeless body taken at the crime scene that physically brought her back into the space. By MARIANNE THAMM.
There is something instinctual about the need to avert our gaze on encountering someone who has died traumatically in public. It is not for wanting to avoid seeing, but rather to afford the dead, who can no longer speak or act for themselves, the quiet privacy and dignity they deserve.
In the line of duty journalists are often confronted with scenes of death and violence. Some of us develop the ability to step back from the immediate horror and place a camera or a notebook between ourselves, the reality and what it is we need to recount to others. Our cameras and our notebooks, or so we believe, absorb something before it passes through us.
Until yesterday, what has become known as the Shrien Dewani trial has been mostly about procedure, the mental health of the accused, whether he was fit to stand trial as well as various other technical legal matters that needed ironing out between the state and the defense teams.
For those of us outside the process, Anni Dewani has, until now, been burnished into our mind’s eye as the beautiful young woman we have come to know from various photographs that have been published since the hijacking and murder in November 2010. There’s a lovely black and white photograph of a pensive young Anni, Anni the bride, Anni smiling with her husband Shrien.
Yesterday the full weight and horror of the murder was brought into the courtroom when police video footage of the crime scene where Anni was found was screened prior to the first witness, pathologist Dr Janette Verster, taking the stand.
There were gasps from the courtroom at the sight of Anni, slumped in the back seat of the silver VW Sharan, still wearing the black cocktail dress and strappy high heels she had dressed herself in only a few hours earlier. That picture will replace now, for those who have seen it, the images of Anni so vital in life. In the dock, Shrien Dewani simply bowed his head.
Anni’s parents and siblings were mercifully not in court to witness the footage. They have carried the weight of their sorrow and grief at her loss for four years. And these are not images – the last taken – that any parent should see of their child.
The family returned to their positions in the courtroom only later, as Verster set out what she had encountered at the crime scene and explained the details of her later pathology report. The family had to listen to the minutiae of the wound that killed her, the trajectory of the bullet, the other marks and bruises on her body.
Earlier in the day, the “bombshell”, as the media termed it, was Dewani’s surprise admission, read out in his 37-page plea explanation by his advocate, Francois Van Zyl, that he is bisexual and that he had used the services of male prostitutes.
In the statement Dewani explained, “My sexual relations with males were mostly physical experiences or email chats with people I met online or in clubs, including prostitutes such as Leopold Leisser. My sexual interactions with females were usually during the course of a relationship which consisted of other activities and emotional attachment.”
Shortly before this was read out, Dewani had pleaded not guilty to all five counts including murder, kidnapping, robbery and the obstruction of the administration of justice.
The admission appears to be an attempt by Dewani’s legal team to preempt the state’s allegation that he arranged Anni’s murder because is a gay man who was looking for a way out of the marriage. Dewani will be cross-examined on this later and the state is certain to try to determine whether Dewani had disclosed his bisexuality to Anni prior to their marriage.
On closer scrutiny, the choice of language of Dewani’s pleading makes for interesting reading. The statement and the specific choice of words are intended to set up or sketch a portrait for the court of Dewani’s version of the courtship, his relationship with Anni, the marriage and the events that took place leading up to the murder.
Describing his relationship with Anni, Dewani said, “On our first date I was instantly physically attracted to her, loved her bubbly personality and sensed there was a mutual chemistry.”
There is an apparent need to establish here that the attraction was indeed physical and by nature sexual, and that this was reciprocated. This is in contrast to statements by Sneha Hindocha, Anni’s cousin, who has said that Anni had confided in her that she and Shrien had never had sex.
Dewani’s plea also features an email that he wrote to Anni after she had called off the engagement in 2010. The email was written without the notion that anyone other than Anni might read it and Dewani’s choice of words at the time is less calculated and perhaps more reflective of the truth.
“When we first met, I immediately liked you … And no, not just because you are pretty … but because you made me laugh. We had such a good time at the first dinner at Asia de Cuba. I have always wanted a girl that I can be friends with. One that understands me – and I know that that is not easy.”
Here, Dewani uses the word “like” for what he, earlier in his statement, recorded as “instantly physically attracted”. The word “like” is, one must argue, quite devoid of any passion or physical longing. If Dewani was trying to be the polite, well brought-up boy, this was not the time to be doing this. His fiancée had broken up with him and he was attempting to woo her back. But this is a matter for the state to take up if it believes it is of any significance.
In the mail Dewani also tells Anni he understands that he is viewed as controlling but suggests that this is only because he is desperate to make a success of his life as a businessman, a husband and hopefully as a father.
“I want to be someone who can do things – and that is not just about making money, but it is about having a rounded social life. A family, a business, an input into the community. When we first met and started dating I knew that you were that girl.”
He concludes the mail by apologising for being controlling, telling Anni that he finds it difficult to “show” how much she means to him and that she is “precious to [him]”.
For the next two months the media contingent that will be camped out at the Cape High Court will internalise all the details of the case in an attempt to bring to readers and viewers the ringside seat they will not have, unlike the Oscar Pistorius trial.
Yesterday the court ruled that the list of witnesses set to testify could not be made public so as to protect these from being hounded by the media. The case will continue on Wednesday. DM
Photo: British businessman Shrien Dewani appears in the Western Cape High Court on Monday, 6 October 2014. He pleaded not guilty to killing his wife Anni in Cape Town in 2010. Apart from murder Dewani is also charged with kidnapping, robbery with aggravating circumstances, and conspiracy to commit these crimes. He is also charged with defeating the ends of justice. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA/Pool