Schem­ing, trig­ger-happy cops brought to book


It’s like a script for a Sam Pek­in­pah film – with vi­o­lence and an ever-deeper moral


T LAST, eight years later, the courts are fi­nally done with the three cops who shot and killed a farmer in the East­ern Cape.

Their ap­peal against the con­vic­tion and sen­tence was re­jected last week, and two of them – the third, Mlungisi Papu, has since died – will serve time in jail.

Papu was sentenced to five years and Fezek­ile Maseti and Zuk­ile Zinto to four for mur­der, but they also broke the law in other ways – by try­ing to hide their role in the farmer’s death.

It’s a story that reads like the script for a Sam Pek­in­pah movie, start­ing with vi­o­lence and shoot­ing, then mov­ing from lit­eral dark­ness into ever-deeper moral shadow.

Fac­tu­ally the tale be­gins with an armed and vi­o­lent sus­pect who shot at a po­lice ve­hi­cle on May 13, 2006. Alarmed, the po­lice planned a night raid on an iso­lated farm­house in the Seymour dis­trict, ap­par­ently be­cause of re­ports that the sus­pect could be hid­ing out there.

The next night a posse of po­lice, heav­ily armed with 9mm pis­tols and large cal­i­bre ri­fles, made their way in si­lence to the farm. As they closed in on the farm­house

Athe dogs be­gan bark­ing and the oc­cu­pants of the house, in­clud­ing the farmer, Shadrack Nkuzo, came out to see what was hap­pen­ing.

He called to whomever was hid­ing in the shad­ows to iden­tify them­selves but the po­lice did not an­swer. Un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances Nkuzo seems to have fired a warn­ing shot.

Im­me­di­ately the po­lice fired back, even though they were hid­ing be­hind a trailer and were in lit­tle per­sonal dan­ger.

Nkuzo died from a high-ve­loc­ity gun­shot wound to the head.

When they dis­cov­ered his body – and that he was not the sus­pect they wanted, but an or­di­nary farmer try­ing to pro­tect him­self and his fam­ily – the po­lice be­gan to con­coct de­fences for them­selves.

Photographs of the scene show Nkuzo’s body with a gun in his hand. How­ever, the trial court and the court hear­ing the ap­peal found the gun was planted in his hand by the po­lice, spe­cially for the photographs. This was to shore up their ver­sion of the story: that they came un­der fire and shot back, be­liev­ing they were shoot­ing at the armed sus­pect.

The courts com­mented that this act of de­cep­tion raised ques­tions about their hon­esty on other is­sues, too.

They also tried another strat­egy to hide their ac­tions and in­formed a doc­tor at the mor­tu­ary that Nkuzo had been killed in a car ac­ci­dent. The doc­tor on duty duly signed a cer­tifi­cate to that ef­fect.

The truth was later dis­cov­ered and in­ves­ti­ga­tors of what was at the time called the In­de­pen­dent Com­plaints Direc­torate ar­ranged for the body to be ex­humed for a sec­ond, proper, post-mortem.

On trial, the po­lice claimed they shot in self-de­fence, cit­ing “pri­vate de­fence” and “pu­ta­tive pri­vate de­fence” – con­cepts now well known to fol­low­ers of the Os­car Pis­to­rius trial – but the courts re­jected th­ese claims.

In a fi­nal but ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful bid to avoid re­spon­si­bil­ity the three raised yet another de­fence dur­ing ar­gu­ment of their ap­peal: We were merely fol­low­ing or­ders, they said.

The trial court found the ev­i­dence of Nkuzo’s fam­ily hon­est and re­li­able. They had painted a pic­ture of “deep dark­ness” around the house when they came out in re­sponse to the dogs’ bark­ing, and when they called to the in­trud­ers this was met by si­lence.

By con­trast the po­lice ev­i­dence was “disturbing” and “un­sat­is­fac­tory”. The en­tire op­er­a­tion was mis­con­ceived from the start: None of the po­lice, said the courts, could have en­ter­tained a rea­son­able sus­pi­cion that their “quarry” was on the farm. One of the ac­cused, for ex­am­ple, knew Nkuzo and his fam­ily well and once he ar­rived on the farm, would have known there had been a mis­take.

There were more po­lice in­volved in the op­er­a­tion than the three charged with Nkuzo’s death, and the judges said that it was un­rea­son­able and “fool­hardy in the ex­treme” for them all to have gone, “un­der cover of dark­ness” to a re­mote farm, armed with “a bat­tery of ar­tillery” with no proper plan.

Papu, the now-de­ceased first ac­cused and “com­man­der” of the ex­pe­di­tion, showed a “level of in­ep­ti­tude of epic proportions”, said the ap­peal court.

Un­hap­pily it’s not just in­com­pe­tence: As the in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cials com­mented at the time, this case shows just how dif­fi­cult it some­times can be to un­earth the truth when you are faced with po­lice de­ter­mined to cover up their il­le­gal ac­tions.

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