Pretoria - Louisa Koekemoer, the biological mother of murdered 3-year-old Poppie van der Merwe, will be 72 before she gets out of prison again. Her husband Kobus’s first chance to leave prison will be when he turns 69.
Their fate was sealed on Thursday when Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, Judge Bert Bam, sentenced each to life imprisonment for Poppie’s murder, plus a further 10 years each for child abuse.
This means that the pair will have to remain in prison for at least 25 years before they are considered for parole.
Although she cried bitterly while she gave evidence in mitigation of sentence, a stony-faced Louisa, 47, did not shed a tear upon hearing her fate.
Kobus, 44, throughout sentencing sat with his head bowed. He looked totally different with a clean shaved head and wore shorts and sandals.
Spontaneous applause broke out in the public gallery from members of child abuse action groups, as well as the paternal grandparents of Poppie, Carla and Johan van der Merwe, when Judge Bam sentenced the pair to life imprisonment. Judge Bam found that there were no mitigating circumstances to warrant a lesser sentence than life imprisonment.
He said the aggravating circumstances in this case were overwhelming.
Louisa and Kobus rushed from the dock to the holding cells in a bid to avoid the media.
Louisa earlier testified in mitigation of sentence. She wept so much as she spoke of her life as a child being abused by her stepfather, that the judge asked whether the court should adjourn so that she could compose herself.
Louisa said it was not necessary, but she wept so much that her evidence was barely audible. When asked by her advocate whether she had any remorse regarding Poppie’s death, Louisa said: “Yes, I have remorse. I am sorry that I could not help her, but I was not able to. I did not know what to do. Please believe me.”
She said she was grateful when a neighbour in Orania reported the child abuse to the authorities, as she could not do this herself. Louisa maintained that Kobus vowed to kill her and the children if she spoke out.
She said she had lost everything due to her arrest. She was even wearing the clothes of a family member, as she had nothing. She last saw her three remaining children before her arrest.
A prison pastor submitted a statement to court, saying that Louisa was now a child of God, who even gave advice to other mothers in jail. “I think I am an example for my children as I learnt from my mistakes,” Louisa told the court.
But Judge Bam, during sentencing, said neither her tears during the time she testified in the main trial, nor her tears now impressed him at all. “She regretted that she was arrested for the murder of her child. She has no remorse.”
During sentencing, the judge remarked that it was difficult not to be emotionally affected about what had happened to Poppie, especially if one looked at the pictures of her body, which were handed to court.
The judge said it was not easy to look at the pictures, but as an officer of the court, he had to determine the case dispassionately.
While child abuse groups displayed pictures of a blue-eyed, blonde Poppie in happier days, it was a far cry from what the court saw in the months leading to her death.
Those pictures showed a child with a clean-shaven head, who was emaciated, with lifeless eyes.
The judge remarked that if the child was once assaulted and then died, it would have been a different story. But Poppie was abused for eight months prior to her death in December 2016.
The child often fell unconscious following beatings, with her mother and stepfather accusing her of “playing dead”.
A pathologist noted 25 old and new injuries to the girl’s body at the time of her death. Poppie had a massive bump to her forehead and it was said that all the beatings, and the head injury, eventually led to her demise.
Louisa claimed Kobus hit the child head first into a kitchen cupboard and later kicked her while she was on the ground. He, in turn, claimed she hurled the child out of the bedroom door and she slammed her head against the wall.
Poppie’s grandmother, Carla van der Merwe, said she was happy with the sentence, as the pair deserved life behind bars. “They did not show her any mercy; why should the court show them mercy?” she asked.