The trial of Guatemalan murder accused Diego Novella ground to a halt for an “indeterminate amount of time” on Monday as the court scrambled to establish the mental state of the accused.
A week ago his defence lawyer, William Booth, was due to deliver final arguments, but in a shocking revelation, Novella stood up and told the court he had lied during his testimony.
He was immediately referred to a district surgeon at Victoria Hospital, who recommended that the dosage of his medication be increased and described the incident as a panic attack. Novella was also placed on suicide watch.
But Booth told the court he could not take instructions from his client and requested the assessment of a private psychiatrist.
Novella is on trial for the murder of his 39-year-old American marketing executive girlfriend Gabriela Kabrins Alban in 2015.
Alban’s body was discovered in the room she was sharing with Novella at an upmarket boutique hotel in Camps Bay on July 29, 2015. She had been strangled and had suffered blunt force trauma.
Novella was arrested the same day, a few hours after hotel staff found Alban’s body.
He has pleaded not guilty. In his plea statement, Novella, who is from a prominent and wealthy family in Guatemala, claimed he had been in an abnormal mental state after he took hallucinogenic substances.
These were listed as sceletium, dronabinol (a prescription drug sometimes taken to treat cancer) and dagga.
“These substances had a disinhibiting effect on me, causing me to respond in an abnormal manner.”
On Monday, Booth told the court he was unable to obtain “clear and concise instructions” from his client and that the private psychiatrist who had since last week consulted with Novella twice believed he was suffering from depersonalisation and derealisation.
In his report, he said Novella was unfit to stand trial at present.
A visibly irritated Judge Vincent Saldanha said he did not understand the conditions diagnosed in the report: “This is speaking in tongues.”
“This entire episode was precipitated by your client not taking his medication last Monday morning. Before he appeared in court he had not taken his valium for his anxiety. He elected not to take it before coming to court.”