Credibility of expert witness challenged in Rohde murder trial

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Jason Rhode and his late wife, Susan

The State called into question the credibility of defence forensic pathologist Dr Reggie Perumal in the Western Cape High Court, referring to two previous cases where a court had rejected his testimony. News24 reports that Perumal was hired by murder-accused businessman Jason Rohde to conduct a second autopsy on his wife Susan, after her death at Spier wine estate on 24 July, 2016.

The report says that at the start of his cross-examination, prosecutor Louis van Niekerk asked if Perumal was aware of any time a court had not accepted his expert opinion on a matter. “I am not aware,” replied Perumal, who was dressed in a dark suit with a red tie.

Van Niekerk then referred the court to two cases in which Perumal’s testimony was rejected.

The report say the first was an appeal heard in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Durban, between the State and John Dauth, in September 2017. Dauth appealed his conviction for drunken driving and questioned the handling, storage and treatment of the blood sample kit. He did not testify and called Perumal to the stand, who testified in reference to a bundle of documents. Van Niekerk pointed out that during this case, Perumal conceded he was not an expert in microbiology but relied on his experience with drunken driving suspects when he was a district surgeon.

The report says van Niekerk read out the judgment from that case: “In short, his evidence on the expiry of the blood kit was based largely on speculation. He also seemed to be relying on instructions by the appellant, yet he is not a legal representative of any sort.” The court dealing with the appeal found that Perumal’s testimony was correctly discredited, was of no value to the initial judicial officer and that there was no misdirection on the part of the judicial officer.

In response, Perumal said he never speculated in that case. A short while later, he conceded that he did not know the expiry date of the blood alcohol kit. Perumal said he did not rely on instructions from anyone and only worked with the blood alcohol evidence.

The report says van Niekerk also made reference to a case of 13 police officers who were charged in the Western Cape High Court after a suspect died while in custody. A pathologist who performed the autopsy on the suspect was called to testify. Perumal was called by the State in that case to give an expert opinion on how the suspect died. He testified that the suspect’s injuries were more as a result of some assault than of him falling out a vehicle and onto a road. Van Niekerk pointed out that he made considerable concessions during cross-examination in that case.

The court in that matter found there was no evidence to support Perumal’s conclusion and that his reliance on post-mortem photographs to draw certain conclusions was “problematic” due to the quality of the photos.

The prosecutor asked Perumal whether he still stood by his findings on Susan’s cause of death. Perumal said that, on the balance of probabilities, he still believed her death was more likely due to hanging than manual strangulation. “I haven’t come here being dogmatic about anything,” he said.

Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe asked if it was possible to make an imprint mark on a neck to make it look like someone had committed suicide. He replied that he wouldn’t exclude it as a possibility, but it was unlikely.

News24 report

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