“Naicker, shut the door.” These were the first words spoken to “bridge lawyer” Koobashan Naicker after the Durban Regional Court sentenced him to an effective six years in jail yesterday, for driving drunk, while on cocaine and on medication, killing three people on Durban’s Athlone Bridge three years ago.
They came from a policewoman who called down to him from the top of the staircase into the cells, into which Naicker had just descended, clutching a bottle of water.
The door closed, marking the end of Naicker’s freedom.
The magistrate said that the disbarred lawyer had shown no remorse and had been having sleepless nights as he realised that he would be sent to jail.
Naicker appeared in court dressed in a black shirt and tie, looking ahead throughout his appearance. He pleaded guilty in October last year to eight charges, including three of culpable homicide and one for reckless driving relating to the deaths of mother and son, Gillian Bell, 32, and Connor, 8, and former Empangeni dance teacher Carmen Hunter, 19.
Two young girls, Jeena, 6, and Kayla, 3, Martin were seriously injured in the crash, but survived because they were wearing seat belts.
The families of those killed and injured shared their heartache and enduring sense of loss in statements on Thursday. Their lives had changed forever and dealing with their grief had been harder because of Naicker’s endless delaying tactics.
Present in court were the grandparents of Connor Bell, Keith and Jenny Griffiths and Audrey Bell, and her daughter, Sharlene Versfeld. Gillian’s husband, Jason, has found it too painful to come to court.
The three women, who burst into tears when they heard the sentence, wore T-shirts emblazoned with the faces of Gillian and Connor.
Just before sentence was passed, Audrey told The Independent on Saturday that she did not believe Naicker was remorseful.
“Every time we’ve sat behind him in court, he has had the opportunity to ask the court if he could apologise. All our lives will never be the same,” she said.
The issue of remorse featured prominently in the proceedings. Before passing sentence, magistrate Blessing Msani, said it was “difficult to accept that he was remorseful. I must point out that it was remarkable that you did not take the stand to express remorse.”
On Thursday Naicker’s wife, Patty, had testified in mitigation of sentence, saying it was “painful for him to talk about”. She said her husband would have spoken to the victims’ families but was told that he was not allowed to.
But the magistrate dismissed this evidence. “What his wife described was not remorse. Instead it was regret. The sleepless nights she referred to were about an awakening to the prospect of imprisonment. Mr Naicker, being an attorney who has had an accident and killed three people, should have known better.”
Msani sentenced Naicker – who had pleaded guilty – to eight years, two of which were suspended for five years on condition he was not found guilty of culpable homicide in a case related to driving.
He was further sentenced to a total of three-and-a-half years’ jail, with the option of fines totalling R9 500 for drunken and negligent driving.
Speaking for the Bell family, Keith Griffiths said that the six-year sentence was “probably acceptable”.
“The reality is that it’s not about the prison sentence. It’s that we can close the door and get on with our lives,” he said.
Jenny Griffiths said that Naicker’s incarceration was important for her other grandchildren.
“The dude is now in jail and can’t kill anyone else. That’s what they call him. The dude.”
Connor’s aunt, Sharlene Versfeld, remarked: “It’s a weird feeling. You look at his life. It’s also messed up. I hope this gives a clear message to people who do this that it’s not okay.”
The director of South Africans Against Drink Driving (Saad), Caro Smit, was disappointed with the sentence.
“We think he got off very lightly … but we are pleased he has been jailed,” she said.
Smit said that should he be let out early for good behaviour, Saad would call for him not to be allowed to drive again. If he were permitted to be allowed to drive, he should be forced to have an alcohol ignition interlock installed in his car. This is a breathalyser that one blows into that prevents the car from starting if it senses alcohol.
The magistrate yesterday also declared Naicker unfit to have a firearm. He had a previous conviction of assault.