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The man once tipped by President Jacob Zuma to become the top prosecuter, has been accused of allowing dangerous criminals to walk free, despite an overwhelmingly strong case against them.
Pinetown magistrate Stanley Gumede, who last year had been earmarked to head the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), despite a raft of misconduct charges levelled against him, released two men charged with attempted murder after a bloody home invasion in Hillcrest in April.
Gruesome footage of the attack, which saw homeowner Ryan Sutherland stabbed repeatedly as men armed with knives and pangas rushed into his house, went viral on YouTube. Sutherland was critically injured in the attack, which prompted the intervention of a special police task team to combat rampant crime in the Highway area.
Despite high-quality CCTV footage that identified the attackers, witnesses that positively pointed them out, as well as their own confessions, Gumede released them on free bail because of the allegedly shaky case against them.
Gumede, who had been identified by Zuma to head the NPA, still faces 12 counts of misconduct, including complaints of sending a police officer to jail, releasing suspects without a bail hearing, and using strong language against a prosecutor.
He was picked out by Zuma to head the NPA amid strong opposition, owing to the string of allegations against him, which have yet to be tested.
A source close to the investigation, who could not be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media, said the case against the two suspects had been “watertight”.
“The docket was handled impeccably and, considering all the damning evidence, it was an open and shut case,” he said.
The source said high-quality CCTV footage from the night of the robbery enabled the identification of the two men, who were arrested three weeks apart
“In addition to the footage, we had confessions from the two suspects, as well as positive identification from the victims, who had pointed them out during an official identity parade,” he said.
The source decried Gumede’s decision to release the men on free bail.
“The state opposed the granting of bail vigorously because of the violent nature of this crime. The suspects also had no permanent employment or fixed address. Because the case against them was so strong, and conviction was likely, they might flee and, despite all of this, the magistrate released them on free bail. Now they are in the wind. It is unthinkable,” he said.
The source said Gumede had recused himself from hearing the matter after the furore created by his decision.
“As far as I am concerned, the damage is done and they are out. I will be very surprised if they show up for their court appearances. He (Gumede) made out as if the case against them was so weak that it justified him letting them go,” he said.
Sutherland, who has since recovered from his wounds, condemned Gumede’s decision.
“There was overwhelming evidence against them, the most notable being hours of footage from 14 cameras around the house that caught the whole incident.
“They had balaclavas on, but then took them off, so their faces were caught on the inside cameras, and they had signed confessions that I have actually seen.
“Two of us identified them at a parade, and still they get let out. What more do you need?” he asked.
“I have never heard from the police. I found out that these guys were walking the streets from one of the private investigators.
“Try to catch those guys again – that’s never going to happen. They are never going to pitch for their trial,” Sutherland added.
The businessman said he had lost all confidence in the criminal justice system and was making an effort to emigrate from the country.
“I am patriotic about the country, and because of that I stayed while a lot of my relatives were leaving. But I am done now – I want out.
“I am not staying here after what happened to us. It would be another story if justice was served, but I have no hope. There is no true justice in this country,” he said.
Sutherland added that knowing his attackers were free imposed on him a sense of impending danger.
“It plays on my mind constantly, and I need to think about my wife and kids.
“I am lucky to be alive – the blade was an inch away from hitting my aorta. I almost lost my wife and daughter, because she was pregnant during the attack and, because of the stress, she delivered my daughter two months prematurely.
“I live my life activating and deactivating alarms, and my children can’t even play in our garden any more,” he added.
DA shadow minister of police Dianne Kohler Barnard said the release of the men placed Sutherland in grave danger.
“It is never for a politician to comment or pressure any court in this country. However, my heart goes out to the victim, who must be absolutely terrified,” she said.
“I find it absolutely extraordinary when the case against them appears to be watertight, and I have no idea what the magistrate could have been thinking.
“This is not the first time I have heard of a case like this happening, and I certainly hope it will be the last. I will be asking the minister of justice to investigate this matter, and for the courts to take a tougher stand,” she added.
KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas called for an appeal to the Magistrates’ Commission.
“I think that an appeal should be launched to the Magistrates’ Commission about this case, as this has been done in the past.
NPA spokeswoman Natasha Ramkisson-Kara insisted the conduct of magistrates fell outside their ambit.
Ten attempts – including four by phone and six by SMS and WhatsApp – to contact Gumede for comment were unsuccess at the time of going to print.
Secretary of the Magistrates’ Commission Danie Schoeman confirmed that the misconduct inquiry into a raft of allegations against Gumede was still ongoing. It would continue for some time this year.
In another incident, two men understood to be linked to a spate of armed robberies in Westville were released without charge last week, despite being arrested in possession of a stolen car and two unlicensed firearms.
Police at the time hailed the arrest, as the vehicle had been spotted being used in housebreakings and robberies over several months.
A police source, who could not be named, confirmed charges had been withdrawn against the two men.
“They were arrested after having been inside a stolen car, and after a chase and shoot-out with police.
“These are serious charges. How can they just be withdrawn, either by the investigating officer or the magistrate? Someone has dropped the ball,” he said. - The Sunday Independent