James Myburgh writes on the debate around the autopsy results at the first inquest
Ahmed Timol's last hours
This is the fourth in a series of articles on the Ahmed Timol case. The first, second and third pieces can be accessed via the embedded links.
According to the version presented by the Security Police to the original 1972 inquest into the death of Ahmed Timol, at 8 am on Wednesday 27th October 1971 Captains Hans Gloy and Johannes van Niekerk had resumed their interrogation of the South African Communist Party operative. Through the course of that morning around 15 pages of notes were taken down of Timol’s answers to their questions. These would be later asked for and produced in court, though only a few pages were entered as an exhibit.
At some point in the morning Timol had then started writing out a statement, beginning with a diagram of “How Communist Party operates.” It would eventually run to seven pages of fine, closely written text. He had, it was claimed, eaten lunch with his interrogators.
At 3.30pm that afternoon Sergeant Jan Rodrigues, an administrative clerk from the Security Police in Pretoria, had arrived with the monthly salary checks for Gloy and Van Niekerk, along with a file. Rodrigues brought a tray with the three cups of coffee into the room with him. Timol was still busy with writing this statement at this point. Rodrigues proceeded to stand at the edge of the table for the next twenty minutes.
While he was there Timol allegedly completed his statement and Gloy asked a few further questions and wrote down the answers. This document was handed over to the Criminal Investigative Department (CID) by Gloy on 4th November 1971, along with his sworn statement. It was then handed to Captain FJ Fourie of the police on the 10th November 1971, with a sample of Timol’s writings from his home, for comparison. They were found to match. It was later introduced as evidence at the inquest.
At around 3.50 pm an undercover member of the Security Police had come into the office and said that it had been positively established where some individuals mentioned in the stash of documents found with Timol were located (see the article dealing with this issue here.) Van Niekerk and Gloy then got up to go check on this information and asked Rodrigues to stay with Timol while they did so. Rodrigues told the inquest that he had then moved and sat down on the chair facing Timol (chair "A" below), with the windows to his back:
“The Indian asked me if he could go to the toilet. He was sitting on the chair opposite me. We both stood up and I moved to the left around the table. There was a chair in my way [chair "C"]. When I looked up I saw the Indian rushing round the table in the direction of the window. I tried to get round the table, but his chair was in the way [chair "B"]. Then I tried to get round the other way and another chair was in the way [chair "A"]. The Indian already had the window open and was diving through it. When I tried to grab him I fell over the chair, I could not get at him.”
Under cross examination Rodrigues said that Timol had “opened the catch with his hand” and then he “dived through head and arms first.” He added that this was more than a fall than a dive.
A photograph taken by the police photographer of Jan Rodrigues standing by the window, with his back to the camera, on the evening of the day Ahmed Timol allegedly jumped to his death.
In a statement Warrant Officer Schoon said that he was sitting typing in his office in room 1024, two offices down the passage (room 1025 was empty), at around 4pm when Sergeant Rodrigues had rushed in and said “help, he has jumped.” “Hy was baie verskrik”, Schoon wrote. Schoon had then looked out of his window and seen a body lying among the shrubs. He tried to phone Captain Greyling, but his line was engaged, and he had then called a Captain Jordaan and filled him in. When he turned around again Rodrigues had gone.
Detective Warrant Officer GJ Deysel said in his statement that he was in the passage on the 10th floor when he heard somebody shout that Timol had jumped. He immediately grabbed two blankets and ran to the lift where he met Colonel Greyling. The two travelled down to the ground floor and they then proceeded to run to the place where the body lay. There Deysel had found Timol lying on his stomach with his right arm under his body, and his left arm slightly away from his body. His body was lying with the head in the direction of the building. His right leg was bent inwards and his left leg was straight. His right foot was without a shoe. His mouth was slightly to the right in the direction of the shrub. The bush was on his right side approximately by his shoulders and chest. There were branches of the shrub lying under his body under his chest and shoulders.
On their arrival he and Greyling had felt Timol’s pulse from his left arm and detected a heartbeat. While Greyling ran off to call for medical assistance, he had struggled to roll him onto the blanket. As he had tried to turn him over the blood had started streaming from Timol’s face. He had eventually managed and with the assistance of colleagues had carried him into the building. Once they got Timol into the foyer they felt for a pulse again. This time there was none. They then took the body to the nearest room on the 9th floor where it was examined not long after by District Surgeon Dr Vernon Kemp. This was confirmed by Kemp in his statement. He said that he was called at around 3.55pm and when he arrived at John Vorster Square ten minutes or so later the “Indian man” was already dead. “He was just dead” (“pas dood”).
The body was then taken to the mortuary. Deysel said that he then went back to the place where Timol had lain to find the missing shoe. There he had found a right shoe as well as a watch with a broken leather armband lying on the ground.
One of the most important non-Security Police witnesses at the inquest was Cecil William St. John Pattle, a Brigadier in the CID (the detective branch). He was from an English family from the Transkei, and his late brother Pat Pattle had been one of the great Allied fighter aces of World War Two.
In his statement deposed to on 22nd November 1971 he said that he had been sitting in his office in room 705 on the 7th Floor of John Vorster Square on 27th October 1971 when at around 4.10 pm Brigadier Burger had come in and told him that a body had been seen falling from the Commissioner Street side of the building a few minutes before.
He immediately went down to the ground floor to investigate and there he saw members of the Security Police led by Colonel Greyling carrying what appeared to be a body in a blanket from the Commissioner Street side of the building towards the lift. He had spoken to Lt. Col. Greyling “who appeared to be most upset and said ‘dit is ons man’ [that is our man].”
A short while later he interviewed Greyling in his office where he made a further report to him, after which he accompanied Greyling to room 1026 where he was introduced to Sergeant Rodrigues. Rodrigues made a “full report” to him, as a result of which he examined the office. In his testimony to the inquest Pattle said that Greyling had been present at his interview with Rodrigues, whom he said was “very excited”, and had asked him to “deal nicely with this chap – he is very upset.” In his testimony he also described Rodrigues as being “white as a sheet and very upset.”
There were no apparent signs of the office having been unduly disturbed, nor that any struggle had taken place. “There were no signs of blood stains on the floor, walls, ceiling or furniture in the office. The left hand section of the window was ajar (approximately – 55 degrees) and the retaining screw on the window, was found to be loose (unscrewed). No scratch marks or any other marks which might indicate a struggle were found on the window or walls nor were traces of hair or other body tissues found.”
Pattle had then phoned the official police photographer Detective Warrant Officer Van der Merwe, who had already left his office to go home. He had then phoned his house, at approximately 4.45pm, leaving a message for him to return to the office immediately. Van der Merwe had arrived back at around 5.40pm taking photographs of various points indicated to him by Sergeant Rodrigues (see picture above).
By the time this had been done it was already dark outside (sunset on that day was at 6.21 pm). It was only the following morning then Van der Merwe had been able to take various photographs of the place of impact where, as Pattle put it, Timol’s body had “allegedly struck the ground indicating an indentation of the ground surface and damage to the shrubs apparently occasioned by the impact of the body during the fall. The point of impact was a distance of approximately 10 feet [three metres] from the building line (right angular measurement.)” The body did not appear to have struck the wall of the building, he wrote, or any projection thereon, of which he could see none, during the course of the fall. The shrub, which was several feet tall, was completely stripped bare on the one side. These photographs were also submitted as evidence to the inquest.
Photos from what remains of the original inquest file of the shrub on which Ahmed Timol landed following his fall. They were taken by the police photographer the day after his death.
Given that Timol’s fellow detainees were prevented from giving evidence, the only testimony as to his treatment up until the last minutes of his detention were his Security Police interrogators and guards. They had a very strong motivation to deny any ill-treatment and were, in any event, often very well practiced in routinely lying about such matters. Yet, as George Bizos’ noted in his discussion of the Timol case in his 1998 memoir No one to blame?, the body of the dead detainee on the mortuary slab could provide compelling evidence on his behalf. Here the injuries “carefully noted and subjected to scientific examination – often told a story which could not be controverted, nor easily explained by witnesses whose loyalty to truth and justice was outweighed by their loyalty to the apartheid state, and to their fellow wrongdoers.”
On the morning of the Friday 29 October 1971 the autopsy was conducted by Dr NJ Schepers, the Chief State Pathologist in Johannesburg with Dr Jonathan Gluckman, a private pathologist representing the Timol family, in attendance. Various sections of bruises and abrasions found on the body were taken for further histological (microscopic) analysis. The body was then turned over to the family for burial the following day. That afternoon at 3pm Schepers went to the scene where he examined where and how the body had fallen, including the shrub it had hit and the various edges on the ground where it had landed. The autopsy report was signed off by Schepers on the 4th November.
At the inquest itself, which got underway on Monday 24th April 1972, Dr Ian Simson, Professor of pathology at the University of Pretoria, sat as an assessor with Magistrate De Villiers. Maisels and Bizos meanwhile were closely assisted by Dr Gluckman and Dr H Shapiro, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Natal. In preparation for this crucial part of the case the legal team for the family spent an afternoon at Gluckman’s home in Westcliff painstakingly going through the bruises and injuries found on the body. Given that the autopsy evidence was incontrovertible that Timol had died as a result of massive internal injuries caused by the fall, the critical task was to distinguish between the numerous injuries sustained as a result of the fall (Timol would have been travelling at a speed of over 80km/hr when he hit the shrub) and any injuries possibly sustained before the fall.
Advocate Fanie Cilliers, who would go on to become a top silk at the Johannesburg bar, appeared for the police, and he was assisted by Professor Hieronymus Koch, Chief State Pathologist in Pretoria. This was the same Dr Koch who had blotted his reputation in the Salim Essop interdict case, by failing to be completely frank in an affidavit. Both Maisels and Cilliers were brilliant advocates in total command of the forensic science they were dealing with, as was the assessor Professor Simson, who was a brilliant forensic pathologist in his own right. All the forensic evidence was equally accessible to both sides and it was subjected to detailed and effective testing and cross-examination.
In his testimony to the inquest Dr Schepers presented his expert opinion as to which injuries had been sustained in the fall, and how these had been sustained. A key part of this was matching the injuries on the body to the two sites of impact –the shrub into which it had first fallen and the irregular ground on which it had finally landed. There was, according to Schepers, extensive bruising on Timol’s back probably caused by hitting a branch. He had then ended up hitting the ground on his front right side in an almost horizontal position, albeit with his head slightly lower than his legs. All the broken bones and many of the bruises were described as being consistent with the fall. According to a very detailed Rand Daily Mail report on his testimony Schepers stated as follows:
“There was a fracture of the right elbow and one of the middle-right femur. This indicated that Mr Timol fell on his right side. He had large bruises on his right forehead, where he had apparently hit the ground. He also had a bruise just above his right eyebrow. There was blood above and below the eye… There was a large bruise on the right knee as well as on the right lower leg. All these injuries had… occurred when the right side of the body hit the ground….
The left groin was bruised and the left ankle was strained, probably by hitting the right leg. Large bruises on the front of the right lower leg were probably also caused when the left foot hit against the right leg during the fall….There was a fracture on the base of the skull, another one on the left frontal bone, a crack towards the middle of the skull and another fracture on the right side through the frontal bone. This fracture did not meet the one on the left. One of these fractures was probably caused when the skull hit the ground and the other one when the head swung around to hit the ground on the other side. This fracture on the right was probably caused by an irregularity on the ground. There was also a loose fragment of bone present.
The brain showed extensive bleeding and was ‘very ischemic’. The brain was shaken so badly there was bleeding ‘practically everywhere’. The nose was broken. Compression occasioned by both sides of the head … caused the fracture in the middle of the head. The right upper jaw was fractured and the left upper jaw was cracked. The left lower jaw was fractured… The torn left renal artery was probably caused by the body turning around… The neck was broken where it was attached to the chest. If the head had been much lower than the rest of the body during the fall, he would have expected a fracture in a different place.”
According to the autopsy the stomach contained some food, of which partially digested potato chips could still be identified. The bladder was dilated and contained a lot of urine. Dr Schepers also said that Timol must have lived long enough after his fall to draw a few breaths.
There appears to have been no dispute from either Adv Maisels or Dr Gluckman that the serious injuries documented in the autopsy were consistent with the fall. In cross examination Dr Gluckman was asked by Cilliers:
“Dr, Gluckman, did you find any fractures or broken bones in this body? --- Yes, together we found fractures and broken bones.
As a result of the fall presumably? --- The assumption was that it was as a result of the fall, yes indeed, but we didn't analyse it as to whether this could have occurred other than from the fall, we noted the injuries.”
After asking about whether any of the bruises and abrasions identified as pre-fall injuries matched any underlying fractures or broken bones, and getting a somewhat unclear response, Cilliers then put it to Gluckman:
“…do you think that the serious injuries and fractures that were found in the post-mortem, are consistent with having been caused with a fall? --- Yes, Sir.”
The key issue that was in dispute during the first inquest then was the dating of the abrasions (scrapes or scratches) and bruises - none of which could be matched to any broken and fractured bones - that could not be ascribed to the fall. The science is essentially as follows. It is possible to roughly estimate the age of an abrasion through microscopic analysis of the healing process, scab formation and so on. It is not possible to reliably age a bruise with anything like the same degree of accuracy though there are some significant time markers. The most important of these, for this case, was that an inflammatory reaction sets in after around three hours and this can also be detected through histological analysis.
In the autopsy itself Dr Schepers and Dr Gluckman took seventeen different sections of the bruises and abrasions. In ten cases the bruises were found to be “fresh”. There was no inflammatory reaction detected and so – on this measure - they were either incurred during the fall or within three hours before the fall. There were several bruises and abrasions which were, according to Dr Schepers’ autopsy report, between five to six days old. Under cross examination by Maisels and questioning from Professor Simson Dr Schepers agreed that these could actually be from four to eight days old.
Due to some differences of interpretation on the 24th May 1972 Professor Simson and the expert witnesses (Dr Gluckman, Prof Shapiro, Dr Schepers and Prof Koch) had all gone to Dr Gluckman’s laboratory to microscopically examine the sections that had been taken. They reached consensus on what they saw, but did not discuss interpretation.
The consensus between Gluckman, Shapiro, Schepers and Simson was that the ante-mortem abrasions were between 4 and 8 days old and the bruises between 1 and 7 days old. Although the latter could not be dated with the same degree of certainty as the former it was likely that they had been incurred at the same time. Professor Koch tried to argue that the injuries were older, and so could not possibly have been sustained while Timol was in police custody, but his evidence was very quickly (and humiliatingly) discredited under close questioning by Simson and Maisels’ cross-examination.
Given that there was absolutely no evidence that Timol had been in a fight, or injured, before he had been stopped at the roadblock on the late Friday night of 22nd October the clear inference could be drawn that these injuries were sustained soon after his arrest. This is further supported by Salim Essop’s account of his assaults on the early Saturday morning, immediately following his arrest, as well as his injuries as described by Dr Kemp and Dr Law following his hospitalisation on the Tuesday morning.
Given that not all the blows he received would have left traces the marks on Timol’s body were evidence of a furious assault. See pictures below. The bruises on his upper right arm were consistent with being grabbed perhaps in order to throw him to the ground. The numerous bruises on the left side of his chest (O) evidence of repeated punches or kicks. Although these had not resulted in any broken ribs he would certainly have complained of pain, according to Dr Schepers. There were also a number of bruises and abrasions on his upper right shoulder (H) and an abrasion on his middle right collar bone (A) his right upper hip bone (D) and his upper thigh (K). The scrape-marks on Timol’s right elbow and upper forearm (F) and lower left forearm (N) would have been consistent with defensive injuries such as having put up his arms in an effort to fend off repeated kicks from a boot.
Pictures of Ahmed Timol's pre-fall injuries published in the Rand Daily Mail at the time of the first inquest
Although most of these injuries would have been covered when Timol was fully clothed one or more of them would certainly have been evident to the Security Police officers, Bouwer and Louw, guarding Timol at night while he allegedly slept in his underwear with bright lights on. It was clear then that a number of the police witnesses were lying when they said that Timol had not been assaulted in their presence (if he had been in their presence throughout this time) or that they had not seen any injuries on his body.
In his closing arguments for the police Adv. Cilliers acknowledged that on the medical evidence Timol could have been assaulted by the police while in the first one-and-half days in custody. But he argued that given that Timol had been in custody for four days and 17 hours the less serious injuries incurred during this initial period “could have no bearing on what happened on the day of his death or on the reason he jumped out of the window.” In his closing arguments for the family Adv. Bizos argued that if there had been injuries incurred during Timol’s last 24 hours, but before the fall, these could not be determined after death.
To sum up then, the “careful scientific examination” described by Bizos in his 1998 book had established the following: Timol had been assaulted following his arrest. This assault had resulted in numerous bruises and abrasions but no fractures. Given that almost all of these injuries were probably all incurred at around same time there was an absence of marks indicative of assault from that initial period up until (at least) the three hours before Timol’s death. This obviously did not mean that Timol had not been subjected to various other forms of torture in this period – such as sleep deprivation, standing torture, electrocution, suffocation, or even beatings with flat objects – which would not have left marks. The bruises, serious internal injuries and fractures documented in the autopsy from around the time of death were all consistent with Timol falling from a great height and a great speed first into the stem and branches of a shrub and then onto uneven ground. This did not preclude the possibility that some of these injuries could have been incurred immediately before the fall but there was no proof of this.
Maisels and Rodrigues
The central focus of Maisels’ attack on the reliability of Rodrigues’ evidence was thus on the inconsistencies in various witnesses accounts of what he had told them had happened in the moments before Timol’s death. These related to whether Timol had actually made a move towards the door, before rushing to the window, and to whether Rodrigues had gone around the left or right side of the table in his effort to stop him from jumping.
Brigadier Pattle told the inquest that Rodrigues had told him immediately after the incident, in the presence of other witnesses, that “he was sitting facing Mr Timol when the detainee asked to go to the toilet. Both men rose simultaneously. The sergeant moved to his left and encountered a chair. He had placed his hands on the back of the chair when he saw out of the corner of his eye Mr Timol move to the southern side of the room towards the window. The sergeant then followed Mr Timol around the table but the detainee had already reached the window, opened it and jumped. Sergeant Rodrigues was ‘unable to do anything about it’.”
Rodrigues had been asked to take up a position by the police photographer of where he had been when Timol jumped and this had been submitted as evidence (see above). This contradicted Rodrigues’ testimony that finding his way blocked by Timol’s chair on the left he had then moved back around to the right. He was called back to explain the discrepancy and he told the court: “When the man jumped I was very shocked. I had an even bigger shock when I saw the body. At that stage I was in a nervous and shocked condition and everything that happened afterwards just seemed to be vague to me. The photographer could have asked me to take up different positions.”
Pattle said that he thought that Timol had indeed dived as described by the witnesses. “The motion was very fast as Rodrigues explained” he said. “It was more or less a continuous motion as he opened the window and dived.” In response to a question from De Villiers he said he ruled out the possibility that Timol had been pushed, as “the body being where it was found indicates to me that a certain amount of propulsion had propelled it away from the building line.” Maisels asked Pattle: “Have you done any study of projectory and what happens when certain things fall from certain windows at certain heights? - No, I left that to Sir Isaac Newton, I only know what I have read.” De Villiers then commented “I think this is very important and if necessary tests will be carried out. I am trying to get to the truth, if there is any doubt this is most important.”
From the available press reports it does not seem that Maisels’ raised this issue in his closing arguments, though he presumably would have if there had been a discrepancy between Rodrigues’ account and where the body landed. The height and size of the window, the height of the window above the ground, as well as the precise position where the body landed on the shrub, was information accessible to all parties in the case, and precise mathematical calculations could have been done.
On the day after the fall Rodrigues had also been interviewed by Major General Buys of the CID who was now investigating the case. The Rapport journalist Freek Swart was doing a story on Buys’ recent promotion, and Buys very briefly relayed to him on the Friday the circumstances leading up to Timol’s death. In an article published in Rapport on Sunday 31st October 1971 Swart quoted Buys as saying:
“In the office on the tenth floor here was the most relaxed atmosphere that could be expected in such circumstances. Ahmed Timol sat calmly on a chair. There were Security Police men with him. At a certain stage two of them walked out of the room. Suddenly Timol flew up and aimed for the door. The one Security Police man jumped up and ran to the door to stop him. But the Indian then rushed for the window and dived through. Nobody frightened him. The autopsy will show this.”
That Sunday Buys confirmed to the Rand Daily Mail that the Rapport account was correct. Again this did not completely match Rodrigues’ version in court and Swart was called to give evidence. He told the court that he had not taken notes when he had spoken to Buys on the matter, and he had written up the quote from memory. Under cross examination he acknowledged that this was not a verbatim quote but rather he had tried to capture the essence of what Buys’ told him. The focus of what he was trying to convey was that Timol had committed suicide rather than the precise movements around the room, which he was unfamiliar with in any event. He also conceded that in writing that Timol had rushed to the door he may have dramatized the quote a little bit.
Some variation in the testimony of the various witnesses as to what they remembered Rodrigues having told them about the incident, particularly on a peripheral issue such as which direction he moved around the table, was to be expected. Indeed, a lack of any variation would have been suspicious as it would have suggested prior rehearsal and collusion. Equally, given that he was in a state of shock, the account Rodrigues gave immediately after the event could be expected to differ somewhat from the account he gave a day after.
As one recent academic article on the subject noted, the relationship between stress and memory is complicated and veridical (truthful) memories may “not always be accompanied by a high level of confidence and details. In particular, victims of violent or otherwise upsetting crimes may have vague and disjointed memories of the event, especially during a first interview soon after the crime, when stress levels are still high. It should not be surprising if a second interview, conducted when the stress hormones have returned closer to baseline levels, contains a more coherent story, with additional details that were not recalled on the first interview.”
The real oddity of the police investigation was that while Rodrigues had been immediately interviewed by Pattle and then the day after by Buys– an account of which was then placed on the public record via Rapport - a sworn statement was only taken from him well after the incident. As Maisels noted in his closing arguments:
“In my day, one took a statement from a witness as soon as one could. It is quite inexplicable that no written statement was taken from the main man on the spot, Sgt. Rodrigues, before November 11 - a fortnight after the occurrence. It is not as though during those 14 days the police were so busy they could not get down to it. If Your Worship should examine the investigation diary, you will see that statements were taken from even such persons as the undertaker, whose evidence is of no value.”
For some reason then Buys had waited until after Quentin Jacobsen had been arrested, Timol’s interrogators and night guards had submitted their statements, and the autopsy report had been completed, before they took Rodrigues’ statement. This would have given the Security Police, and particularly Gloy and Van Niekerk, time and opportunity to decide on a version to present to court and to make sure that Rodrigues did not contradict it. If this was not around the fact that Timol had rushed to the window or the autopsy results then what was it?
This all raises the critical question of motive. If Timol had propelled himself out of the window then what had driven him to do so? Why too, assuming Rodrigues’ account of this at least was correct, had the Security Police chosen to lie on certain crucial matters, even at the expense of the plausibility of their story?
This will be the subject of the next article.
 Statements of Gloy and Van Niekerk, 4 November 1971 (here). Gloy says: “Hy het eger vrylik gesels oor die dokumente da thy ‘n lid van die Kommunistiese Party van Suid Afrika was end at hy skakeling met genoemde organisasies in London met bekende Kommunieste gehad het en in hierdie vriendelike atmosfeer het hy self sy eie handskrif gest en inligting uitskryf… Hy het nog steeds notas gemaak oor sy verbintenis en deelname in verband met die Kommunistiese Party. Die stuk opgestel in sy eie handskrif is nou voor die hof.“ Investigation diary states: „Verklaring van Kapt. Gloy en ontvang stuk deeur orledene geskryf.“
 “Court told of scene before the death fall”, Rand Daily Mail, 27 (?) April 1972
 Statement of Jacob Johannes Schoon, 29th February 1972
 Statement of Gabriel Johannes Deysel, 16th November 1971
 In the original Afrikaans: “In die kantoor op die tiende verdieping was die mees ontspanne atmosfeer wat ‘n mens jou in sulke omstandighede kan voorstel. Ahmed Timol het rustig op ‘n stoel gesit. Daar was veiligheidsmanne by hom. Twee van hulle het in ‘n stadium uit die kamer gestap. Toe vlieg Timol skielik op en mik na die deur. Die een veiligheidsman het opgespring en na die deur gehardloop om hom te keer. Maar die Indier storm toe op die venster af en spring deur. Niemand het hom bang geraak nie. Die lykskouing sal did wys.“ Rapport 31 October 1971.