Axeman killer Joseph Ntshongwana to remain behind bars after failed appeal

21 November 2023 - 14:49 By TANIA BROUGHTON
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Former rugby player Phindile Joseph Ntshongwana. File photo.
Former rugby player Phindile Joseph Ntshongwana. File photo.
Image: Tebogo Letsie

Former Blue Bulls rugby player Joseph Ntshongwana, who was sentenced in 2014 to five life terms, is a “dangerous criminal” who has to remain behind bars, the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) has ruled in dismissing his appeal.

Ntshongwana, dubbed the “axeman” for committing a spate of murders in which his victims were attacked with an axe, and some decapitated, was found guilty in the Durban high court of four murders and one count of rape.

In June 2021, a bench of three KwaZulu-Natal judges dismissed his first attempted appeal against conviction and sentence.

He then appealed this in the Supreme Court of Appeal, which this week unanimously ruled against him.

The issues during his trial, and appeal in KwaZulu-Natal, was whether at the time of committing the crimes, he lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, or act in accordance with that appreciation.

The three KwaZulu-Natal judges rejected his claims that he was mentally ill and could not be held responsible for his actions.

During his lengthy trial before acting judge Irfaan Khalil in the Durban high court, he pleaded not guilty to nine charges.

He relied mainly on a defence of pathological criminal incapacity, submitting as part of his plea a report from a psychiatrist who diagnosed him as having a “delusional disorder”, believing he was going to be harmed, poisoned or killed.

While state witnesses were cross-examined, their evidence was not disputed by Ntshongwana, who claimed he had no memory of committing the crimes.

He did not testify.

Writing for the court, SCA acting judge Leonie Windell, said in the latest appeal, Ntshongwana’s lawyer had argued that it was not disputed that Ntshongwana was able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct — the real issue was whether he had capacity to act in accordance with that.

It was argued that the evidence of the survivors, coupled with the evidence of Ntshongwana’s expert, Prof Abubaker Gangat, proved that he did not — even though during the trial he had come to accept that he had committed the offences.

Windell said the trial court’s findings — that he had criminal capacity — could not be faulted and it had justifiably concluded that the murders were premeditated

Windell said Gangat, in his evidence, had suggested in general terms that Ntshongwana was in a psychotic state when he committed the offences.

However, he had not fared well under cross-examination and had conceded that he was not aware of the details of the allegations against Ntshongwana — only that he was incarcerated for murder.

“When confronted with the undisputed evidence of the witnesses, namely that Ntshongwana drove a car on various occasions, he had an axe in a plastic packet which he removed and used to attack his victims, that he committed the offences over a four-month period, asked the rape victim if she had ever had sex with a ‘Xhosa boy’, and threatened her to keep quiet when someone knocked on his bedroom door, he [Gangat] became evasive and merely stated: 'Anything is possible',” Windell said.

She also referred to evidence that he claimed the rape complainant was his girlfriend, and that he hid the axe in a dog kennel.

A panel of expert psychiatrists, called by the state, who had read the transcript of the evidence, had disagreed with Gangat’s findings and said Ntshongwana’s actions showed that he fully appreciated the consequences if caught.

Windell said the trial court’s findings — that he had criminal capacity — could not be faulted and it had justifiably concluded that the murders were premeditated.

She said she also agreed with the trial court’s finding that Ntshongwana’s claim to have had amnesia during the whole period during which he committed the offences (from November 2010 to March 2011) appeared to be an “afterthought”, to be treated with scepticism.

She said the court had not ignored his history of mental illness — as claimed by his lawyer — and his appeal on conviction must fail. With regards to the sentence, she said Ntshongwana was a dangerous criminal who had acted with flagrant disregard for the sanctity of human life.

“Counsel for the appellant [Ntshongwana] accepted that in the absence of a finding of diminished responsibility, there were no substantial and compelling circumstances justifying a departure from the prescribed minimum sentences imposed by the trial court. This concession was rightly made.”

In a separate, concurring judgment, judge Nathan Ponnan said it was clear Ntshongwana could appreciate right from wrong and had acted with an appreciation of this.

“He had the wherewithal to go about his daily life, drive to unfamiliar places to seek out his victims, perpetrate the offences and avoid detection.

“On at least two occasions, he stopped when disturbed before fleeing. It thus seems inconceivable that over a period of many months, he suffered complete loss of control only at the crucial time when committing each offence,” judge Ponnan said.

Ntshongwana killed Thembelenkosini Cebekhulu in Montclair, Durban, on March 20 2011, Paulos Hlongwa in Lamontville two days later, Simon Ngidi in Umbilo the following day, and an unidentified man in Yellowwood Park some time that week.

All were hacked to death with an axe and two victims were beheaded.

In addition, Ntshongwana also raped and kidnapped a woman. He attacked and tried to kill two men, one in Umlazi on March 21 2011, and the other in Lamontville on March 23.


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