Professor Colin Tredoux speaks about the infamous Station Strangler case, being taught by J.M Coetzee and the difficulties facing court convictions. Anthony Molyneaux sat in his leafy offices at UCT to find out what’s next for Tredoux.
“There was someone murdering young boys in the 80s and 90s in Cape Town. Modus operandi was the same it seemed, he would meet young boys between the ages of 8 to 18 years at train stations and he would ask them to do things for him,
‘Carry a box and I’ll give you R5.’
“Once he led them away from the train station, he would tie their hands up, rape them, murder them, mutilate them and shove their heads in the sand. Twenty two boys over an 8 year period were killed.”
Professor Colin Tredoux, a psychology professor at UCT, strokes his grey goatee thoughtfully as he recalls all the information on the infamous station strangler case.
There was a R50, 000 reward for any information on the murders in the impoverished Mitchells Plain area. Vigilante groups were escalating in their violent behaviour against suspected residents.
On the 19th March 1994, after another boy was found in the sand, the police finally got a break in the case in the form of two eye-witnesses.
The identikit drawn up by the two eye-witnesses led to a tip-off by a nurse of a patient undergoing treatment in a psychiatric ward in Cape Town.
The eye-witness testimony and the line-up that ensued made up the crux of the evidence against a 28-year-old Mitchells Plain school teacher named Norman Afzal Simons.
Simons was found guilty of the death of Elroy van Rooyen, the last boy to be murdered. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and locked in Drakenstein Maximum Correctional Facility near Paarl.
Tredoux, having investigated the finer details of the case, believes that the station strangler case has many curious tactics and methods that may have led to an example where the law and investigation can go wrong.
He is not the only one.
Norman Afzal Simons pictured at the Police station when he enrolled for the reservist position
“Most of the police you ask about this are convinced he is not the guy. The lawyers who defended him are absolutely adamant he is innocent,” states Tredoux.
Advocate Koos Louw, who defended Simons, refused to cut his hair for 16 years in a sign of protest against Simon’s trial and conviction.
“You look at the theory of our law and what is supposed to happen and then you get the actual judgments and procedures. These two are remarkably different to what they are supposed to be,” says Tredoux.
Tredoux has a monumental knowledge of the case as he is an expert in eye-witness recall and line-up fairness through his barrage of published research papers.
“Early on my research centered on devising measures to improve the fairness of police line-ups. My second strand of research was Eigenface which is a tool to assist the police in getting better quality pictures of perpetrators from eye-witnesses. The third strand is armchair investigation as to why the current method is so inaccurate.
“In Simons case, not only was the eye-witness extremely hesitant of pointing Simons out, but the line-up had serious concerns in terms of fairness. All the participants of the line-up were supposed to be of similar height, dress and have similar features such as scars or tattoos. In the line-up footage, Simons is the only one that has a facial scar and wearing the most notable mustard coloured pants,” states Terdoux.
“In South Africa we have more of a bias to prosecuting people rather than defending them. If you defend people more vigorously, more guilty people go free. We are desperate to prosecute people and drive crime down, we are happy to let innocent people have a little less protection.”
Even with the current method being so inaccurate, there are more factors at play that reduce the chances of accurate convictions.
Internationally, he found through his studies that a large factor in identification inaccuracies is cross-race identifications.
“There’s a difficulty in recognizing people from other groups. If you look at the mistaken convictions in the United States, three quarters of them are white people trying to identify black perpetrators. Of the roughly 330 cases that DNA has now vindicated in America, three quarters of those were cross-race identifications,” states Tredoux.
If memory recall, eye-witness inaccuracies and questionable line-up discrepancies are so prevalent, is there a future where DNA and technology rule, instead of subjective memory recall?
“DNA testing is always circumstantial. All it proves is that you were there. You can argue that you had been there before on another occasion. That’s different from someone saying, ‘I saw him do it, he is the guy who had the gun and he pulled the trigger.’ DNA needs to be backed up by a visual record of the perpetrator being there at the time of the incident,” states Tredoux.
CCTV is the new kid on the block in court rooms for attorneys to identify suspects. This ‘objective’ method should rule out all these inaccuracies in terms of eye-witness recall. However, Tredoux has mixed feelings about this new form of identification.
“The likelihood of identifying the CCTV image with the actual person has been shown to be 50 percent. The images are grainy for one, but it’s not just that, it’s a tricky task to match a photograph of a person at point one versus the person at point two. It sounds absolutely straight forward, dead-easy, but it’s not,” states Tredoux.
“CCTV and cell phone footage won’t be good for arguing identity; it will be good for circumstance. In this case, it’s not an argument about identity, it’s about likelihood.”
On the 28th of August, four teenagers were convicted of killing Dean Mayley in west London. The CCTV footage shows the criminals blocking Mayley’s path and then stabbing him in the chest when he refused to hand over his money. Just as Tredoux pointed out, their faces are indiscernible but the footage did help to place the perpetrators at the scene and aided in convicting the four teenagers.
CCTV footage revealed the incident yet the men’s faces were indescribable. (BBC)
Regarding Tredoux’s past work, I spoke with one of Tredoux’s PhD students, Alicia Nortje, about Tredoux and his motivation behind his work.
“If Colin has an opinion about something, he has probably thought about it for some time because he doesn’t make any hasty judgments. He is not hell-bent on justice. I think in the station strangler case, it’s a really interesting application of our work, and there is social responsibility that goes with that.”
PAST and FUTURE
Tredoux grew up in Pretoria and attended the reputable Pretoria Boys High School.
Upon moving to UCT to study English Literature in 1982, he was taught by the legendary Pulitzer, Nobel and Booker Prize winner, J.M Coetzee.
“Coetzee was a very cool person, quite distant. Formidably clever and he taught us unusual things like Defoe. I remember when I was an honours student and working in the computer science building. I used the word processes, as it was in 95, and Coetzee was always there, every night, typing away frantically on the processor,” reminisces Tredoux.
Coetzee is currently living in Adelaide in Australia. I wondered if Tredoux would continue his current direction and spend the rest of his working years in Cape Town
“I have another fifteen years [left]. It’s tricky because you can become a member of the overfed bourgeoisies very easily,” he says, laughing loudly.
After a long pause, he continues,
“I think a change of scene of some kind might be the best thing for me. A totally different country, a totally different way of doing things. A gigantic change could be it.”
Tredoux, working tirelessly over the past twenty years, has published many research papers such as ‘Evaluation of ID: using Eigenface as an eye-witness tool to aid the police’. He has also studied the accuracies of cross-racial prejudices in identikits and facial composites, has tackled racial preferences in children and researched line-up construction and fairness.
Concurrently, Simons has been in jail over the past twenty years and just as Tredoux is looking for a change, a major change may be facing Norman Afzal Simons. The alleged Station Strangler is due for parole in 2015. It seems Tredoux and Simons share something in common.
A documentary feature regarding the Station Strangler case and the details surrounding this case will be released soon. Follow this blog for more information.