Guatemalan murder accused, Diego Novella. Picture: Courtney Africa/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Cape Town -  Guatemalan murder accused Diego Novella on Monday brought court proceedings to an abrupt halt when he stood up in the Western Cape High Court and said "I lied when I gave my testimony".

Novella allegedly murdered his American marketing executive girlfriend Gabriela Kabrins Alban in July 2015 at a Camps Bay retreat hotel where the two were sharing a room.

The defence was due to deliver final arguments, but lawyer William Booth, acting for Novella, said he was "gobsmacked" by his client's about-turn. Booth said he had consulted with Novella on Saturday and had not heard this before and was "completely and utterly taken aback" by his client's admission.

Judge Vincent Saldanha warned Novella not to say another word and adjourned proceedings to allow Booth to consult with Novella.

Novella's nephew was at court for the first time. The accused warmly embraced Xavier Novella before a court orderly warned him to move to the back of the courtroom.

Last week, the State, in its final argument, said that there was no evidence to suggest that Novella did not have criminal capacity when he allegedly murdered Alban.

Novella's plea explanation argued that the accused had diminished responsibility because of substances he had ingested which had psychotic-like effects.

Booth was adamant that the substances his client took had indeed affected the accused's criminal capacity. "The accused's intake of cannabis, cannabis oil and sceletium caused him to be in a psychotic-like state and disinhibited. He said he observed a demon (the deceased) and the intake of those substances caused this effect on him. This, in a nutshell, this is his defence." 

The 39-year-old Alban's body was discovered in the room she was sharing with Novella at an upmarket boutique hotel in Camps Bay on July 29, 2015. She had been strangled and had suffered blunt force trauma. 

Her face was covered with chips and faeces and a note had been left on her body with the Spanish word “cerote” scrawled on it, which means piece of s***. A fingerprint expert has testified that Novella’s fingerprint was found on the note. 

Novella was arrested the same day, a few hours after hotel staff found Alban’s body.

He has pleaded not guilty. 

In his plea statement, Novella, who is from a prominent and wealthy family in Guatemala, claimed he had been in an abnormal mental state after having taken hallucinogenic substances.

These were listed as sceletium, dronabinol (a prescription drug) sometimes taken to treat cancer, and cannabis. “These substances had a disinhibiting effect on me, causing me to respond in an abnormal manner.” 

Judge Saldanha repeatedly returned to the issue of criminal capacity last week, pointing out that psychiatrist Professor Sean Kaliski from Valkenberg mental hospital where Novella was initially sent for observation, was "of the view that the whole incident arose out of anger. He was motivated by anger and Kaliski doesn't buy for half a minute your defence's version that it was psychotic-like. He said the accused was motivated by anger alone, influenced by the intoxication". 

African News Agency/ANA