Wrongly jailed for triple murder?

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After 14 years in jail for killing three people, Farouk Meyer was paroled, but he insists he only fired once, writes Kyla Herrmannsen.

Johannesburg - When convicted triple murderer Farouk Meyer daringly escaped from Groenpunt Prison five years ago, he was seeking justice, not freedom. Minutes later, he phoned Talk Radio 702 to plead for a re-examination of his case.

“I have crucial evidence that will prove my innocence,” he told listeners before willingly handing himself over to the police and returning to a life behind bars.

Last month, he finally walked out of Sun City prison a free man – leaving behind the padlocks, orange uniforms and barbed wire.

Meyer was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1999 for murdering three men in a violent brawl inside Club 12 Play at Hillfox on the West Rand.

While Meyer insisted he had shot just a single bullet in self-defence, the court found him guilty of premeditated murder the following year.

“Sounds like a nasty piece of work, Farouk Meyer is his name… dramatic stuff, a triple murderer,” said journalist John Robbie over the airwaves.

As in Oscar Pistorius’s case, Meyer’s case hung on establishing intent through forensic and ballistic evidence. In both instances, the trajectory of the bullets and the number of shots fired was, and will be, pivotal to proving intent.

“If you say you shot one bullet, it’s not so serious because, if you shot more than one – let’s say six or five bullets – it shows you have the intent to kill the person,” said Meyer, the tail of his orange chameleon bicep tattoo visible beneath his turquoise T-shirt sleeve.

Pistorius, who shot four bullets through a locked bathroom door, maintains he mistook his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, who was on the other side of the door, for an intruder.

Despite the significance attached to the chain of evidence, both Meyer and Pistorius’s cases have been complicated by alleged incompetence, ineptitude and contamination of key evidence by police officers.

While Pistorius has confessed to firing four shots, Meyer insists that he fired just a single shot in self-defence while trying to defend a friend. During the ensuing brawl, he was hit in the back of the head with a beer bottle and punched in the face. Visible scars on his face show where he underwent surgery after the brawl. He said his vision was impaired by blood when he fired the pistol.

“I fired a shot and the other person came in the middle, so the bullet hit that guy in the chest and went out by the shoulder blade,” said Meyer. Then that same bullet, intercepted by the first person, hit a second person.

“It went through his chest; they found the bullet in his chest… so both of them were fatally wounded with one bullet.”

He maintained that he killed two people with one bullet, while the State argued he killed three people with two bullets.

But the State based its argument on what forensic expert Dr David Klatzow declared was flawed information. He said the post-mortem showed that “…the pathologist removed a single bullet point” – corroborating Meyer’s claim that he fired just a single shot.

But, strangely, a second post-mortem report appeared. “In this second post-mortem report… there is a note that two bullet points were found,” revealed Klatzow. He concluded that “this would mean that somebody has altered the post-mortem report fraudulently to reflect two bullet points”.

Further muddying the waters, the gun that Farouk handed over to police was not the same gun that appeared as evidence in court during his trial. Meyer’s .38 calibre Taurus with a serial number engraved into it had somehow morphed into a serial number-less 357 Magnum Taurus revolver. Baffled, Klatzow declared: “It would appear that whatever weapon was tested had nothing to do with this case.”

Testimony in Pistorius’s trial has also revealed police bungling of evidence, such as the theft of a designer wristwatch from the scene of the crime and the handling of the alleged murder weapon without gloves. The door, reconstructed with Prestik and kept in a body bag in an office instead of a dedicated evidence room – has also proved to be a contentious item of potentially botched evidence.

Meyer’s aunt, Desiree Fisher, claimed the evidence in her nephew’s case was intentionally tampered with. “I have seen that he has been framed,” said Fisher tearfully. She revealed that an entire room in her home was dedicated to paperwork relating to Meyer’s case. There she pored tirelessly over court transcripts, police dockets and ballistic evidence. “If you fight for somebody, you have to believe in their innocence. He was like a son to me,” she explained.

Meyer believes Pistorius has received preferential treatment from the criminal justice system. “People have faith in the justice system as a whole until something happens and you see for yourself,” he said, “If I had had an open trial like Oscar, justice would have prevailed.”

“I don’t know why they are televising it nationally… What are they trying to prove? There are lots of people who didn’t get justice. Everyone must have a trial like that, then justice will be served,” Meyer said, tapping his sizeable gold rings on the table.

Said Klatzow: “He was wrongly convicted and shouldn’t have been in jail. His story of the bullet going through the person is perfectly plausible.”

After 14 years fighting his case from behind bars, Meyer was eventually granted his moment in court at a Supreme Court of Appeal hearing late last year.

The Wits Justice Project (WJP) assisted in sourcing pro bono legal counsel for Meyer in the form of well-known advocate Jaap Cilliers.

“He got put away for murder, premeditated murder, but clearly it wasn’t. So they said ‘that’s ridiculous, we reduce it to 24 years’,” said former WJP director Jeremy Gordin, who was instrumental in assisting Meyer. So Meyer’s life sentence for premeditated murder was changed to a sentence of 24 years for culpable homicide.

Due to a precedent-setting Constitutional Court ruling in 2010, all inmates sentenced to life imprisonment before October 1, 2004 now qualify to apply for parole once they have served at least a third of their sentence.

With Meyer’s sentence lowered to 24 years by the Supreme Court of Appeal last year, he technically had to serve only eight years in prison to be considered for parole. But, having served 14 years already, he qualified to be released on parole in February. But Meyer was not satisfied.

“Farouk thought they’d say ‘you’re found not guilty, go away’,” quipped Gordin. Instead, the Supreme Court of Appeal refused to discuss the merits of the case, choosing to discuss sentencing only. If it had chosen to discuss the merits, the issue of whether Meyer was innocent or guilty would have been debated.

Meyer wants to be exonerated.

“There was no justice at the Supreme Court. I want to clear my name,” said a now free yet determined Meyer, the gold necklace around his neck – as thick as a bicycle chain – glinting in the sunlight.

* Kyla Herrmannsen is a member of the Wits Justice Project, which investigates prison conditions and miscarriages of justice. The project is based in the journalism department at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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