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Henri van Breda found guilty of family axe murders

Henri van Breda
Image: Anthony Molyneaux

Henri van Breda has been found guilty of the murder of his father, brother and mother and the attempted murder of his sister.

He was also found guilty of defeating the ends of justice, after standing trial for a total of 66 days in one of South Africa's most sensational murder trials yet.

Van Breda's brother, Rudi, and father, Martin, were found hacked to death in an upstairs room of their luxury estate home in Stellenbosch on January 27 2015. His mother, Teresa, and sister, Marli, were found "nearby in the doorway" close to the same room.

Judge Siraj Desai's judgment, delivered on Monday in a packed courtroom in the Cape Town High Court, brought to a close a trial in which scores of witnesses had trawled through forensic evidence and accounts of the day and night in question.

Henri van Breda was found guilty on all counts against him. Here’s the moment Judge Desai found Henri van Breda guilty.

From beginning to end‚ with the odd exception‚ it was a damning judgment for both Van Breda and the case presented by his defence.

Desai mapped out a judgment that left no room for doubt, referring to the "highly unlikely" chance of an intruder having breached the De Zalze estate perimeter; the wounds on Van Breda’s body, deemed "self-inflicted" by two "highly professional" and credible expert witnesses; the aggressive fight heard by a neighbour on the night of the attacks; and Van Breda's emotionless state in court – "even as he described the fatal blows to his parents and brother".

The judge said it would be odd for an intruder to try to wipe out an entire family and "leave one member" with so little harm. He said Van Breda had neither tried to help nor consoled his family members and displayed "a peculiar lack of empathy", instead phoning his teenage girlfriend.

He also said Van Breda's call to emergency services on the night of the attack had shown a "lack of urgency" and that the "demeanour of the accused" during an "unduly long conversation" with emergency services seemed "highly unusual for a traumatised victim".

Desai said that Van Breda had "become emotional from time to time" during the trial - which was "to be expected" – but that in general‚ he "did not show a great deal of emotion when he demonstrated the fatal blows to his family members" by an alleged axe-wielding attacker.

The judge added that Van Breda "was the only person alive who could remember what had happened"‚ but had "sarcastically responded that he had had no idea who the attackers were".

Referring to Van Breda's plea statement, in which he claimed there had been unknown intruders on the premises, Desai said the court agreed with the state prosecutor "that it is highly unlikely the perimeter [of the De Zalze estate] was breached by an intruder". 

There was "no credible evidence that an intruder entered the estate” on the night of the incident, the judge said.

Desai added that Van Breda would have had ample time to tamper with evidence.

Each piece of evidence "on its own" might not have been enough to convict him‚ said the judge‚ but "cumulatively" there was only one reasonable inference that could be drawn from the evidence and testimonies – that Van Breda was guilty.

Desai said the court had concluded the chances were "virtually nil" that a second axe had been used at the crime scene. The lack of Marli's blood on the axe did not mean she had not been attacked with that axe.

He emphasised that forensic pathologist Dr Daphne Anthony had described the types of injuries to Marli's head as being "highly similar to those sustained by the other family members" and that "it is highly unlikely the alleged attacker would have brought along an axe similar to the one in the family home".

Van Breda's bail has been revoked and he will be detained in the hospital section of Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town while awaiting sentencing. His defence team will have to provide medical certificates and have his medical condition verified independently if he is to remain in the medical wing.

Long road to justice

Monday's judgment came more than three years after news of the the brutal attacks first rocked the country.

On January 27 2015‚ Van Breda placed a call to emergency services from his family home. Emergency workers found a scene of horror: Martin and Teresa van Breda had been savagely attacked with an axe and had bled out on the first floor of their home. Rudi also lay lifeless on the floor‚ with major head injuries clearly inflicted with an axe.

Still alive‚ but barely clinging to life‚ was Marli van Breda, who was taken to hospital.

Soon‚ the news of the triple murder spread across the estate, into the Stellenbosch community and around the entire country - even as far afield as Australia, where the family had lived for several years‚ and the UK, where close family friends began following the news of what had happened.

Rumours then proliferated about the “problematic middle child” of the well-to-do Van Breda family‚ and the utter shock of such a gruesome attack happening at such a tightly guarded security estate.

It took around 18 months for an arrest to be made‚ which cued a rollercoaster ride of DNA experts‚ police officers‚ forensic pathologists‚ domestic workers‚ neighbours and scores of other witnesses - including Van Breda himself.

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