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Henri van Breda sweats on the stand in his triple murder trial

Henri van Breda sweats on the stand in his triple murder trial

On Tuesday, Henri van Breda took the stand to testify in the trial in which he is accused of having axe-murdered his mother, father and brother in their home on a Stellenbosch estate in January 2015. After Judge Siraj Desai rejected a plea from Van Breda’s legal team for the accused’s testimony not to be broadcast by media, it did not take long for Van Breda to morph from a relatively composed young man on the stand to an individual who seemed visibly uncomfortable recounting his recollections of the night his family died – and the maniacally laughing intruder he says killed them all. By REBECCA DAVIS.

On Tuesday in Henri van Breda’s murder trial, Judge Siraj Desai reminded the court at the beginning of proceedings in the Western Cape High Court that it was the 54th day of the trial. The state has closed its case against Van Breda, and the defence team is on to its last witness: Henri van Breda himself.

Van Breda’s legal team had asked Judge Desai to suspend live broadcast of the trial while Van Breda gave his testimony, arguing that the accused suffered from a speech impediment which could have a “negative impact” on the quality of his evidence. The judge dismissed this application, saying that he was “disinclined to make inroads into a Constitutionally-enshrined right” (to media’s freedom of expression).

Thus far, there has been no evidence of Van Breda’s alleged speech impediment on the stand.

When the 21-year-old took the stand earlier today, he initially appeared relatively composed, though he had to be instructed by his lawyer Pieter Botha several times to speak up. Dressed in a dark grey suit, Van Breda carried a bottle of water and a notebook to the stand. Occasionally his accent revealed a hint of Australian-modulated vowels: a souvenir of the years his family spent in Perth.

Speaking in a low, flat, monotone, Van Breda was initially encouraged by his lawyer to give the court a sense of the Van Breda family’s relationships with each other.

We were a very close family,” van Breda said. He painted an idyllic picture of a close-knit family engaging in the leisure pursuits of the wealthy: “We spent our summer holidays boating together, skiing.” The weekend before the murders, Van Breda testified, the family went shark-cage diving in Gansbaai.

Van Breda appeared well-rehearsed on these safe topics. As the subject moved towards the night of the axe murders, however, Van Breda’s composure appeared to dissolve somewhat. He began wiping sweat from his face, swallowing compulsively and taking deep breaths. Shortly after he began to give his account of the night in question, Judge Desai proposed an adjournment.

Van Breda is accused of murdering his father Martin, his mother Teresa and brother Rudi. He is accused of attempting to murder his sister, Marli.

His account of the night in question thus far accords with his plea statement. After family dinner, he watched Star Wars with his father and brother Rudi before retiring to bed in the room he shared with Rudi.

Unable to sleep, he went to the toilet for a bowel movement, taking his phone along with him. While on the toilet he began hearing “very strange sounds” outside the bathroom. Without bothering to wipe himself – a point reiterated by van Breda’s lawyer – he rushed out of the toilet to investigate.

Van Breda told the court that he saw an attacker wearing “a dark grey mask which basically just had eye-holes” attacking his brother and father. Later in his testimony, he clarified that the alleged assailant appeared to be black.

While the assailant hit his father, Van Breda said he “distinctly remembers a laugh”. When van Breda’s father Martin was lying immobile, the attacker allegedly left the room in search of his mother.

Asked by his lawyer why Van Breda did not try to stop the attacker at this point, he replied: “I don’t know. I was just scared. I didn’t know what to do.”

Van Breda alleges that the attacker then returned to his bedroom, “looked around and then looked at me, then slowly walked towards me and laughed again”.

Despite his fear, van Breda claims he was able to wrestle the axe from the intruder “rather easily”. But a knife was then pulled out, and a struggle for the knife ensued. Van Breda then allegedly chased the attacker downstairs, flinging the axe at him. In so doing, he lost his footing and fell down the stairs.

Getting up, Van Breda briefly exited the house from the back door. Why did he not shout for help to the neighbours, asked his lawyer?

With hindsight, that is something I should have done,” van Breda said.

He subsequently Googled the number for emergency services before passing out unconscious, in his telling, for several hours.

At the moment, Van Breda is being gently led through his testimony by his lawyer. When the state prosecutor Susan Galloway gets a chance to cross-examine him, however, expect things to get a lot less cordial. Galloway is known as a fearsome cross-examiner and could already be seen sighing and shaking her head during aspects of Van Breda’s testimony on Tuesday evening.

Galloway will undoubtedly also question why Van Breda would only testify after he had heard the rest of the evidence in the case – opening himself up to accusations that he is tailoring his evidence to the testimony given by other witnesses.

Matters proceed in the Cape High Court this afternoon. DM

For full analysis of the day’s court session, read Daily Maverick on Wednesday.

File Photo: Triple murder accused Henri van Breda sits in the dock at the Western Cape High Court on 26 April 2017. Photo: Nic Bothma/(EPA).

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