A man who made 46 court appearances over seven years before being jailed for r_pe was freed on the spot by a judge who castigated prosecutors and magistrates for the delays.
“In my view the matter could have been finalised within a week or two. That it took seven years is simply astounding,” said Pietermaritzburg high court judge Rishi Seegobin.
“The passage of time in this case, relative to its facts, was unreasonable in the extreme. It was for these reasons that we felt compelled to set aside the convictions and sentence, thereby allowing [the man’s] immediate release.”
The freed man, from Bilanyoni in Zululand, spent two years behind bars after being convicted of r_ping an 11-year-old girl in 2012 when he was 17 and still at school.
Seegobin said the “huge delays” in the case were due to “tardiness and lack of interest” by the Vryheid regional court magistrate and prosecutors.
“In matters such as this it is not only the interests of an accused person that should be considered but also those of the young complainant and the public at large,” he said.
“Given the fact that r_pe and other s_xual offences have become endemic in this country, there can be no confidence in a justice system that makes a mockery of the rights not only of accused persons … but also of victims of crime. The conduct of the learned magistrate and the prosecutors involved requires censure of the strongest kind.
Seegobin said reasons the case was repeatedly adjourned included absence of witnesses, the need for “consultation”, the courtroom being occupied by visiting magistrates, the legal aid defence attorney’s frequent illnesses, the absence of the magistrate, a broken recording system, the absence of the complainant and the magistrate’s need to attend a funeral.
When the defence closed its case in January 2019, judgment was delivered after a brief adjournment, said Seegobin, and sentence was handed down two months later.
The appeal process began almost immediately but took 25 months to reach the high court, where Seegobin dealt with it on the spot on April 30 and freed the man. He issued his reasons this week.
“A most concerning feature of the delays is that a period of two years and eight months had elapsed from the time of the appellant’s arrest and first appearance until the trial commenced,” he said.
“Thereafter a period of two-and-a-half years passed from the time that the young complainant commenced her evidence until the matter resumed again.”
At that point a new prosecutor stepped in and questioned the girl afresh, leading to testimony which differed in “crucial aspects” from her first account and made her evidence unreliable, said Seegobin.
“Bearing in mind that the charges in this matter were of a s_xual nature involving both a young girl as well as a young offender, I consider that there was an overall duty, not only on the court but also on the prosecution, to ensure that the trial commenced and ended within the shortest time possible,” he said.
“The failure in this regard must be placed squarely at the doors of the learned magistrate and the prosecution. The result of course was the severe prejudice caused not only to the appellant but to the young complainant as well.”