Triple murder accused Henri van Breda testified on Tuesday that he did not kill his parents and his older brother, nor did he attempt to murder his younger sister, Marli.
Van Breda claims a laughing axe-wielding intruder wearing a homemade balaclava and gloves was behind the January 2015 attacks in the family’s home in the security estate, de Zalze, in Stellenbosch.
His testimony, on day 54 of the trial, was broadcast live after Judge Siraj Desai said he was “disinclined to make inroads into a constitutionally enshrined right” to the media’s freedom of expression.
The defence had argued that Van Breda suffered from a stutter and that this could have a negative impact on his testimony if proceedings were livestreamed.
While Van Breda, who turns 23 on Wednesday, began the day looking uncomfortable and sweating profusely, there was no sign of a stutter and after a brief adjournment seemed composed as he took the court through his timeline of the night of the murders.
He told the court they were a close family and enjoyed spending time together, particularly during the holidays.
He methodically repeated statements made in his plea explanation. Van Breda was asked by his lawyer why after seeing the attack on his father and brother, he did not go to the aid of his mother, he said: “I was just scared. I can’t recall what was going through my mind. I certainly wasn’t thinking clearly. I was just very scared.”
While at times unable to recall certain details, he demonstrated clearly the exact positioning of hands when he struggled with the attacker. His memory of his struggle with the attacker was precise.
Van Breda claims he was able to take the axe from the intruder “rather easily”, they then struggled over the knife resulting in injuries to his upper chest and arms. The state alleges these injuries were self-inflicted.
He was asked why he did not call for help. “In hindsight it’s something I should have done,” he said.
The rest of his evidence-in-chief mirrored his plea explanation, but his version was tested when senior State prosecutor Susan Galloway began her cross-examination.
Galloway began by pointing out that Van Breda had not stuttered.
“I have been focusing on not stuttering, I was sweating,” he told the court.
She asked why he was not the first defence witness to testify as is normally the case, suggesting he was tailoring his evidence to what he had heard in court.
Van Breda said he was following his lawyers’ advice.
Galloway then suggested that he hadn’t had a problem with looking at crime scene photographs throughout the trial.
“I wouldn’t agree. I looked at the photos and didn’t enjoy it,” replied Van Breda.
Galloway raised several points that she argued didn’t make sense, including why the family dog, Sasha, didn’t bark that night. Van Breda said she had had “a stroke-like event” soon after they returned to South Africa from living in Australia, and could have been on medication that made her weak.
She also questioned why his mother and sister felt comfortable enough to investigate what was going on in spaghetti strap tops and underwear. Van Breda said he would not have expected to them to put on gowns in the middle of summer.
Galloway then detailed the different levels of security at the estate and questioned how intruders could have entered the house, situated in a central area, completely undetected.
“They managed to pick a house in the estate where the back door is left open, so there is easy access to the house, and then everything changes. They don’t remove valuable property clearly within eyesight. One person moves upstairs and attacks the family.”
“That’s what I saw,” Van Breda replied.
“From the evidence there is a reasonable possibility that someone had access to a key card to gain access to the estate,” he said.
Galloway questioned whether Van Breda understood the difference between a “possibility” and a “reasonable possibility”.
“Reasonably,” said Van Breda with a slight smirk, his confidence seemingly restored.