Neil Aggett was alive at the moment he was strung up against the bars in the John Vorster Square (now Johannesburg Central Police Station) prison cell where he was found hanged.
He may not have been conscious, but he was certainly “vital”. This is the conclusion of pathologist Dr Steve Naidoo who presented his testimony yesterday, Thursday 6 February, at the reopened inquest into the death of the trade unionist and doctor who was found dead in detention in 1982.
Naidoo said Aggett’s body showed injuries consistent with “vital reactions” – the live body’s reaction to the impact of being hanged. There were two distinct haemorrhages that Naidoo pointed out could not have occurred after death.
Naidoo also said that death occurred in one of two possible ways. The first “mechanism of death” would have involved the closing and compression around the carotid arteries that are on each side of the neck that would have caused unconsciousness in seconds and then death within a minute or two.
The other possibility he outlined would have been as a result of the neck being constricted and the sudden gravitational traction from being hanged that would have caused a rapid drop of blood pressure, and in turn a slowing of the heart and then death minutes later.
He said in his affidavit: “The only reasonable conclusion in this case is that the death was caused by the state of suspensory hanging of the body by constrictive ligature around the neck.”
Naidoo, who was the independent pathologist commissioned by the pro bono attorneys working on behalf of the Aggett family, spent most of his time on the stand showing up the “troubling shortcomings” and inconsistencies, the lack of supervisory oversight and outright professional neglect in how the death scene was processed and how the post mortem processes were carried out.
Key among the failings that Naidoo pointed out were the absence of photographs of the body at the death scene. There were also no autopsy photographs taken under correct lighting and guidance of a pathologist with labels, measurements and scales. There are only two grainy black and white photos of Aggett’s body when it was hanging from the prison cell bars.
In political cases, the State’s chief pathologist was also responsible for overseeing an autopsy, not a district surgeon as was the case with Aggett.
“A death of a political detainee from hanging would always have come with a query and a challenge. A chief pathologist present at the death scene and conducting the autopsy would have been able to narrow the window of possibility from the precise nature of the ligature (a kikoi is the item that appears around Aggett’s neck at the death scene), how this ligature lay, how it was tied and importantly the possibility of someone securing the ligature to themselves,” he said.
Naidoo said the autopsy was rushed and was completed just seven hours after the recorded discovery of the body at 1.30am on 5 February 1982.
He added: “The family was not given the time and pre-counselling in order to digest and prepare and to bring in a private pathologist from the beginning. So the family’s rights were disregarded.”
Naidoo also said the post mortem didn’t include processes to reveal subcutaneous bruising that doesn’t appear on the skin, even though the technique was already in use at the time.
Naidoo continues his testimony on Friday. The precise and graphic details of what happened to Aggett’s body in the moments leading to his death are what Aggett’s family and friends have had to hear in the South Gauteng High Court.
These details have given the likes of Liz Floyd answers. Floyd was Aggett’s partner. She’s also a medical doctor and recently retired from her position at the Gauteng Department of Health.
“I didn’t want to look at the photos, not till this time last year, and the more I looked the more I could see that there was something wrong. I also volunteered to translate the jargon in the medical reports for the legal team and when I started comparing what the doctors had written in their reports and what I remembered I saw the contradictions,” Floyd said outside the court on Thursday.
Floyd had till then accepted that Aggett had been driven to suicide. She herself was severely tortured and suffered post-traumatic stress after Aggett’s death and her own detention.
Floyd’s medical background, as well as her personal connection to Aggett, makes for a unique lens through which she can communicate about the medical and forensic findings.
“It’s also that it’s 38 years later,” she adds. “We are going through an inquest this time where there isn’t extreme intimidation, hostility and threat to our personal safety. We also have the support of our loved ones and the support of other detainees – it’s like a family reunion and we’re catching up on all the gossip,” she says with a giggle.
It makes hearing graphic details about Aggett’s dying just that tiny bit more bearable. DM