CAPE TOWN - The sister of convicted murderer Diego Novella has tried to convince the Western Cape High Court that her brother is an "incredible human being" who is sensitive, caring and respectful.
Testifying in mitigation of sentence on Tuesday, Priscilla Dougherty said that as a child her brother had always been "full of energy, always happy, always smiling".
Novella has been found guilty of the July 2015 murder of his American marketing executive girlfriend, Gabriela Kabrins Alban, in the hotel room they shared at the luxury Camps Bay Retreat boutique hotel.
Alban was strangled and suffered blunt force trauma. State prosecutor Louise Friester-Sampson pointed out to the court that the assault had been so violent it had left her brain damaged and her eyes were so swollen they had to be pried open during the post-mortem exam.
But Novella's sister insisted her brother was not capable of such brutality and had never displayed any violent tendencies. "What happened that day has nothing to do with the Diego I have known all my life."
She described their upbringing as privileged, stable and family oriented. Her brother, one of seven siblings, had a close relationship with everyone in the family. But everything changed when Paul, a brother he was particularly close to, died in a car accident at the age of 23. Diego was 15 at the time.
Dougherty struggled to hold back tears as she told the court her brother was declared brain dead but was kept alive for two days so that Diego and her twin brother Lucas could return from boarding school in the United States to say goodbye.
"I think part of Diego died with Paul. My whole family died after that. My whole family was never the same. We were all shocked, especially effected were Diego and Lucas. Paul was always aware of them and looking after them."
During cross-examination, Friester-Sampson said in the case of the deceased's family they did not have the chance to say goodbye and took Dougherty through the disturbing details of her brother's assault on Alban. "Your brother defecated on her, covered her in chips and sweets. Her pants were down below her knees."
Alban's family, her father Howdy Kabrins and stepmother Linda, were visibly distressed as the murder was again detailed in court, often shaking their heads as Dougherty insisted that was not the brother she knew. "I love him deeply, I respect him, I miss him a lot, and I am very hurt for all that has happened."
Dougherty said her brother had been very affected by the murder and had loved Alban very much. She told the court she first met Alban in December 2014, at a Christmas lunch at her father's house. She said she had not met her before, despite the fact that Alban had been living in Guatemala with Novella for several months, because Alban often felt unwell as she was suffering from Lymes disease.
She testified that her brother was frustrated as he liked to help people and believed she had been misdiagnosed.
Dougherty said she spoke to her brother on the phone, but did not see him again before his trip to South Africa the following year.
The news of the murder reached the family in Guatemala on July 30, when Dougherty received a call from a woman in South Africa.
"I cannot describe what went through my head ... she said it so abruptly, it took me a few minutes. I called my older brother's house. His son answered. I drove there to go to him. We got all the family together and informed the other siblings. I then went into shock. I think I'm still in shock."
Novella kept his eyes closed throughout his sister's testimony.
During his trial, he argued diminished capacity as a result of psychoactive effects of substances he had ingested that included sceletium and cannabis oil and claimed that he thought Alban was a "demonic entity".
But Judge Vincent Saldanha rejected this in his June judgment and said Novella had been able to distinguish between right and wrong.
* Receive IOL's top stories via Whatsapp by sending your name to 0745573535.