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Man who spent four years in prison after wrongful conviction to sue State

Published Aug 31, 2020


Johannesburg – A man who spent four years in jail for a crime he did not commit and also suffered mob violence prior to his arrest is trying to pick up the pieces of his life.

Thomas Mathebula’s stint in jail had cost him his family and income while the violence and bad treatment in prison left him with physical and emotional scars.

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“I was working before I was arrested. I have nothing now. I lost everything,” he told The Star on the weekend.

Mathebula, 31, left prison a free man two weeks ago after the Polokwane High Court in Limpopo found in favour of his appeal against both conviction and sentence.

The ruling by Judge Maake Kganyago set aside a 15-year-sentence Mathebula was given by Magistrate PD Nkuna at the Phalaborwa Regional Court in 2016. Nkuna found him guilty on a count of robbery with aggravating circumstances.

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Mathebula was accused of being one of three young men who robbed John’s Supermarket in Phalaborwa on March 23, 2015.

The trio assaulted a shopkeeper with a bottle and allegedly ran off with some goods.

But Judge Kganyago found that Mathebula was convicted unprocedurally. The State failed to prove he committed the crime and Nkuna grossly misdirected himself, said the judge.

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Judge Kganyago found that Mathebula’s alibi, that at the time the robbery was said to have taken place he was at work and afterwards went to his brother’s house, was not proven false by the State.

The alibi was corroborated by his brother, Elvis, who was called as a witness.

Said Judge Kganyago: “In the case at hand the appellant’s alibi was not proved to be false beyond reasonable as the evidence of the appellant’s brother that the appellant who was from work arrived home at 5pm was not challenged.”

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It was a gross misdirection of Nkuna to find Mathebula guilty without the State proving his alibi to be a lie.

“The trial court was also supposed to consider the evidence in its totality and not decide the matter only on the State version,” said the judge.

The body of evidence relied upon to jail Mathebula was also flimsy, Judge Kganyago found.

Police found a packet of cigarettes, airtime and R140 in coins in his possession.

“However, the police have failed to establish where these items originate from. The complainant did not confirm whether these items originate from his supermarket,” said the judge.

Mathebula testified during trial that he spent about 30 minutes at his brother’s house that fateful day before setting off to fetch his wife.

On the way he met four community members who struck him with a stick and he lost consciousness. The four were looking for the trio that robbed a shop, which was located at a different village from his.

“I woke up in the hospital. I was in chains and confused about what was happening.

“I was told I robbed a shop,” Mathebula told The Star.

The conviction and ruling that he should go to jail did not deter him from maintaining his innocence, he said.

“Just after my sentencing I raised my hand and indicated that I wanted to appeal because I was being sent to jail while I did nothing,” he said.

Legal Aid SA, which represented him during trial, took up his appeal application.

Mathebula said he was disappointed that the appeal was not finalised earlier, but he was ecstatic to be free.

He was released a day after Judge Kganyago’s finding.

“Prison warders called me and told me my appeal was successful.

“I could not believe it. I left the jail as if I was running away, thinking they would realise that they have made a mistake.

“I took a taxi very quickly and didn’t even go to my village right away,” he said.

Reality was now sinking in that he has lost a lot. He has not seen his wife and 10-year-old son since his release, Mathebula said.

“I don’t know where she is exactly. I hear she has moved on with her life.

“I will understand if she has moved on but I just need to see my child. The government caused me to lose everything. I was jailed for a crime I did not do.”

Mathebula said he would never forget the jail experience. “Life in jail was hard. Prisoners were often beaten up by officials.

“I was beaten up too. We’d go without water in the prison,” he added.

Mathebula was planning to sue the State for wrongful arrest and imprisonment.


Related Topics:

Crime and courts