Pretoria - The Constitutional Court has overturned the murder conviction and life imprisonment sentence handed down earlier to Liqhayiya Tuta, a Unisa LLB student, who claimed he was wrongly convicted of the 2018 murder of a police officer.
Tuta was sentenced to life in the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, for stabbing to death Constable Nkosinathi Sithole and injuring his colleague, Constable Lawrence Makgaela.
He turned to the Apex Court in his bid to receive justice, which on Friday ordered that he be released with immediate effect.
The court said it would furnish its reasons for its order at a later stage.
The short order issued by the Constitutional Court read: “The accused is found not guilty and acquitted.”
Nine justices ordered that either the head of the Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre in Pretoria or his Johannesburg prison counterpart release Tuta immediately.
In terms of the order, both Tuta’s murder conviction as well as his attempted murder conviction are overturned.
The two officers were patrolling the streets of Sunnyside at about midnight in 2018 when they chased Tuta, believing he had stolen a laptop.
Tuta, who stabbed both officers, maintained that he did not know the two were police officers and acted in self-defence because he thought he was being accosted by criminals.
With the aid of advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, he applied to the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal against both his conviction and sentence.
It was said his claim of self-defence was never tested by the prosecution as the judge intervened while the prosecutor asked him questions.
Ngcukaitobi said this constituted an irregularity in law.
Regarding his sentence of life imprisonment, it was argued that the judge simply applied the law laid down in the Minimum Sentences Act.
It stipulates the ultimate sentence if there are no mitigating factors to warrant a lesser sentence.
It was argued that the judge simply applied the law, without establishing whether there were mitigating factors.
Judge Bert Bam earlier rejected Tuta’s version of self-defence, and questioned why two officers, while patrolling crime-ridden Sunnyside shortly before midnight, would for no reason attack two pedestrians.
Tuta earlier testified that he and his friend had been heading home when they noticed they were being followed by an unmarked red VW Polo vehicle.
They started running in different directions and the two occupants of the car, who they did not know were SAPS officers at the time, chased them on foot. Sithole apprehended Tuta, who then stabbed him.
Makgaela, who came to his colleague’s aid, was also stabbed.
Tuta ran away from the scene and went to the police station the next day, where he told them what had happened. He left his phone number and address at the police station and was arrested later that day.
Makgaela, who had recovered from his injuries, testified that both he and Sithole wore SAPS-issued bulletproof vests over their civilian clothes that night. He said there were street lights and Tuta must have seen the vests.
He said he removed his vest when he gave chase because it was too heavy.
It was argued before the Constitutional Court that if the judge allowed the prosecution to put the State’s case to Tuta when he was questioned in court, it would have become clear that he feared for his life that night and had acted in self-defence.