Fruit of a Poisoned Tree

Antony Altbeker, Fruit of a Poisoned Tree: A True Story of Murder and the Miscarriage of Justice (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, new ed., 2022)

IN Stellenbosch in 2005 a 22-year-old student, Inge Lotz, was fatally beaten and stabbed in a frenzied attack at her flat. There was no break-in and nothing major was taken. After some delay, the police arrested her boyfriend, Fred van der Vyver. He had a very solid alibi, having been at work at Old Mutual at the crucial time, but nonetheless went to trial on the basis of three apparently damning pieces of evidence. First, was his fingerprint on the cover of a rented DVD that put him in Lotz’s presence just before the murder. Second, a print in blood on her bathroom floor was allegedly matched to his sports shoe. And third, he had in his car an ornamental hammer that seemed to match Lotz’s injuries. The case appeared to point in just one direction. But little about the trial turned out to be straightforward. Over ten years ago Antony Altbeker published a book that put it into legal context and referred intriguingly to the social milieu of Stellenbosch. A new edition with an epilogue has now appeared.

Doubt was cast on the fingerprint, one of just a dozen taken from the flat. Police not only flouted their own standard procedures about the administration of prints, but their record keeping was irregular and contradictory. This became all the more suspicious when it was shown that the print was not from a flat and flexible plastic surface, but more likely from a glass tumbler.[1]

Next, the shoeprint was discredited. Ultimately, there were serious doubts whether it was from a shoe at all; nor were there a trail of blood from the murder scene or traces of it on the accused’s shoe. Finally, the hammer, which bore no evidence of Lotz’s DNA and was bizarrely tested on the skulls of dead animals, broke early on and was substituted. This reinforced the view that it was probably too light to inflict the injuries suffered, which could have been produced by a variety of blunt objects. All in all, a tale of forensic nonsense.

Reading the defence cross-examination of the prosecution’s police witnesses is like watching fish being filleted. The limitations of local police were put in even starker relief by the testimonies of a number of international experts. Dogged persistence in pursuit of clear lies and incompetence seemed the default police position. The supposedly independent prosecution was afflicted by the same defect. Altbeker questions this mindset and notes that a hopeless cause can induce compounding stubbornness in spite of clear reality.

As Altbeker clearly explains, a crime such as a murder, a fleeting event, can by definition never be recreated. Justice can only be served by assembling evidence and testing its authenticity; then interpreting it. This is an unavoidably technical approach to what are often traumatic and highly emotional issues.

The defendant’s lawyers had decided to exercise his right not to testify, a tactical manoeuvre that relied on a number of statements made by witnesses. But the judge decided that as these had not been tested in cross-examination he would bear in mind in his verdict what he understood about the defendant’s strange behaviour. So, Van der Vyver changed his lawyer and testified. However, over several days of questioning about his alibi by the prosecutor, he maintained his story; so much so that his own legal team needed to ask him not a single question.

The judge in acquitting Van der Vyver stopped short of calling the police liars and opted instead for general lack of competence. The parents of Lotz sued Van der Vyver but withdrew their case; and Van der Vyver successfully sued the police for malicious prosecution, then lost on appeal. It was a general miscarriage of justice that cost two families a fortune in multiple ways. There was neither justice; nor resolution.

The individuals involved in the trial were in the main remnants of the apartheid-era police and judicial system. None of them emerge with much credit, raising questions about the lasting effects of authoritarian culture. And if public opinion were the judge, Van der Vyver would have ended in jail: some still believe that he literally ‘got away with murder’ even though the trial proved there was absolutely nothing to place him at its scene.

Altbeker puts forward intriguing suggestions that prejudice against Van der Vyver can be attributed to his charismatic religion, seen as part of an existential threat to the Dutch Reformed Church and Afrikanerdom in general. Here was a renegade potentially stealing a young woman from her family and her roots. There was also apparent resentment that his wealthy family could buy first-rate expertise. Was Van der Vyver, then, not just a victim of malicious prosecution but also of the neuroses of a community in the throes of loss of supreme political power?

The police determination to frame Van der Vyver may owe something to public perception, but it possibly had another origin. Not long after the murder, Werner Carolus confessed to a part in the murder. He was a housebreaker and a drug addict and dealer; a tik-kop in local parlance and barely out of his teens. He was to retract, confess and retract again twice, and was highly unreliable. Yet, his original statement made in Springbok contained more detail about the murder scene than he should have known. He was returned to Stellenbosch and underwent two pointing-out exercises. Then, it was alleged, he was persuaded by the officer in charge of the murder investigation, Attie Trollip, a former member of the security police familiar with persuasive ways, to retract. By this time Trollip had the supposed print on the DVD cover and was building a case against Van der Vyver.

The murderer was almost certainly known to the victim who was reputedly very security conscious: there was no forced entry. How could Lotz know a drug dealer? This would have led to a multitude of embarrassing further questions. Carolus’s statements suggest that Lotz was known to him and his friends; and her mother had asked about marks on her skin. So was Van der Vyver the more convenient suspect? Who exactly was Lotz and was there more to her life than appearances and popular sentiment suggested? This question holds a key, but is unlikely now ever to be answered.

Subsequent murder trials over the last fifteen years show little indication that the track records of police and prosecution have improved. The subtitle of Altbeker’s book sadly has far wider application than the intriguing case of Inge Lotz.

[1] This has strong echoes of the murder of Sir Harry Oakes in Nassau in July 1943 when a print purportedly from a decorative screen in the dead man’s room was shown to originate on a drinking glass the accused had been handed by investigating police. The case collapsed and remains unresolved in all senses to this day.

Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page, From the Thornveld