Angy Peter trial: Dying declaration unlikely testifies surgeon

| Adam Armstrong
Rowan du Preez, aka Siphiwo Mbevu, was murdered in October 2012.

Dr Elmin Steyn testified in the Angy Peter trial yesterday that it was “extremely unlikely” that someone in Rowan du Preez’s condition would have been able to “have a long and complicated conversation” in which he identified his assailants.

Angy Peter and her co-accused, husband Isaac Mbadu, Azola Dayimani and Christopher Dina are being tried in the Cape High Court for the kidnapping and murder of Rowan du Preez. Du Preez died after being necklaced in October 2012. He suffered burns to his entire body and died in hospital roughly 20 hours after the incident.

Three police officers who responded to the scene claim that du Preez named Angy Peter and her husband as his assailants. The court is currently hearing a “trial-within-a-trial” to determine whether Du Preez could have made this dying declaration.

Steyn, who testified on behalf of the defence, is the head of Trauma Surgery at Christiaan Barnard Memorial and Vincent Pallotti hospitals. Steyn, who previously worked at Tygerberg hospital, stated that over the years she has seen many burns patient and during the 1980’s she treated many necklacing victims.

Steyn said she would be “surprised” if Du Preez gave the evidence as the police state, as it was “unlikely” he would be able to talk so clearly after the assault.

The defence disputes the police officers’ claims that Du Preez spoke clearly and without pause, that he named his assailants and explained to the police how he was forced into a van, assaulted, driven to the location of the necklacing and set alight.

Stein said that severe stress, pain, anxiety, fear, extreme thirst, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing and physical injuries to the tongue, throat, nose and mouth would all limit the patient’s ability to speak.

Steyn reviewed the ambulance report, as well as the paramedic’s report, on Du Preez’s condition shortly after the assault. A normal resting breathing rate is 12 breaths per minute. Steyn said that when breathing at 26 breaths per minute, as Du Preez was, it is extremely hard to talk. She said that the patient must decide to either slow down their breathing to speak, or continue breathing. She said someone “desperate for oxygen (as a result of the injuries and the shock that the body was entering) is unlikely to waste time talking.”

Steyn testified that while the physical mechanisms to talk, the tongue, vocal cords and brain, were intact, there are many other medical factors that make it unlikely that he would have spoken uninterrupted, as the police evidence states. Someone with such “extremely devastating injuries” will say things related to their immediate survival such as “help me” or “water”, or moan and groan, but not speak in full sentences.

Steyn also reviewed the Glasgow Coma Scale, a tool used to assess mental functioning of trauma patients. The ambulance attendant and the paramedic gave Du Preez 15 out of 15, indicating clear communication and coherent mental functioning after the assault. Dr Steyn, who runs two trauma units in Cape Town, revised these and stated that Du Preez should have received a 9 or 10. She based this on the medical information compiled by the two medical staff attending to Du Preez, and stated that they had been incorrect in scoring Du Preez 15 out of 15.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Phistus Pelesa argued that because Du Preez was able to swear and respond to pain when the paramedic tried to put a needle in his arm, Du Preez’s mental state was good. Steyn said that it was very common for someone with depressed mental function to swear and react to pain.

Pelesa said that perhaps Steyn did not understand Du Preez’s cultural background, as he had used an offensive Afrikaans phase. Pelesa stated that “what you see as normal, that may not apply, so you can’t say that [his mental state was depressed].”

Steyn said that because he did not communicate other than swearing and asking for water, and that he was uncooperative with the paramedic, that was a sign his mental functioning was depressed. She also pointed out that she has worked in government trauma units for many years and has dealt with people from all cultures and backgrounds.

The prosecutor then said that Sotho people often swear when they speak, and it is how they communicate. He went on to explain that this is not an indication of a depressed mental state, but rather a sign of culture.

The defence advocate for Dina and Dayimani objected. He asked if the prosecutor was qualified to speak on behalf of all Sotho people. The court sustained the objection and Pelesa withdrew the comment.

Judge Robert Henney asked Steyn, “Is it medically possible for such a patient to answer, and to use long sentences.” Dr Steyn said they would use single words or very short sentences.

The prosecutor asked if the patient may have chosen to utter his last words, explaining to the police who had attacked him, knowing that he was dying. Steyn said that with patients she had seen, normally after sustaining a serious injury, they were more concerned with their immediate physical well-being than justice or revenge.

“From a medical point of view, when someone is gravely injured and fearful they are going to die, alone, in the night, and someone arrives, they feel hope. Hope that they will survive, and that hope keeps them going for a bit longer. Physiologically, hope helps the person to breathe more easily and the organs function a little better,” testified Steyn.

The court adjourned for lunch, during which time Steyn was called back to hospital to treat one of her patients urgently. She will return on Thursday morning to continue cross-examination.

TOPICS:  Crime Human Rights Murder Violence

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