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S. Africa Trial Over Slain American Unraveling : Justice: Witnesses to Amy Biehl's death have been intimidated. Police methods are held shoddy.

December 11, 1993|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Melanie Jacobs was devastated when her American roommate and best friend, visiting Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, was pulled from her car and stabbed to death by a mob screaming anti-white slogans in a seething black township last August.

But now, standing outside the ornate Supreme Court chamber where three young men are being tried for the brutal slaying of the idealistic 26-year-old from Newport Beach, Jacobs says her grief has turned to outrage.

"I feel a whole lot angrier now than I did then, because the trial has been such a screw-up," said Jacobs, 30, a black South African who works for the Center for Development Studies here. "I don't have much faith right now in the South African judiciary."

The trial, which began Nov. 22, is not expected to end before February. But prosecutors have suffered a series of severe setbacks. And friends and colleagues of the woman believed to be the first American killed in South Africa's spiraling political violence say they are stunned: What seemed a solid government case appears to be unraveling because of shoddy police work and crude intimidation of witnesses.

"It does not appear there has been a very thorough investigation or preparation for the case," said Omar Dullah, director of the Community Law Center at the University of the Western Cape, where Biehl was researching women's rights in an emerging democracy.

"My impression is that once the police obtained confessions, they did not pursue the investigation to obtain other evidence," Dullah added. "That is the element that is very disturbing."

The non-jury trial is currently stalled while red-robed Judge Gerald Friedman conducts what prosecutor Nollie Niehaus calls a "trial within a trial" to decide if the three suspects' statements to police should be admitted as evidence. One of the three, Mangezi Manquina, 21, has charged that he was beaten by police and forced to make a confession.

If the statements are rejected, the case against Manquina, Mzikhona Nofemela, 22, and Vusumzi Ntamo, 22, will be on shaky ground. The three face charges of murder, public violence and robbery. Several key witnesses already have refused to testify, and one has recanted her testimony, because of fear of reprisals.

The three defendants are members of the student wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a militant black group that openly avows attacks on "settlers"--their bitter term for anyone with white skin--and opposes any negotiated political settlement with the white government as a sellout.

Groups of youthful PAC supporters gather outside the Supreme Court building on most days, dancing, waving flags, chanting, "One settler, one bullet," and "Kill the settler!" at passing whites. There have been several outbursts in court as well. Once the gallery giggled loudly as a witness in tears testified how Biehl had groaned in agony during the attack.

The PAC tactics have been remarkably effective in a country that has no witness protection program. All charges were dropped against three other defendants on the first day of trial when a key prosecution witness, who had given police a sworn statement linking the three to the crime, refused to take the stand "for political reasons.".

The witness, Charles Benjamin, said he feared for his life because he was a member of the rival African National Congress. He later said he would have testified "if the ANC gave me the assurance of protection."

Another key witness, Sindiswa Bevu, a friend of Biehl's who was in the car when she was attacked, initially identified two of the defendants in court. She recanted the testimony the next day, however, saying she had been threatened.

And prosecutor Niehaus has told the court that he has two young eyewitnesses who will not testify because their families are afraid.

"You have no credible witness protection program here," said David Welch, a professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town. "And anyone who talks to the police is seen as a collaborator."

A seventh defendant, a 15-year-old who was released in his mother's custody, failed to appear at a Nov. 8 hearing and has since disappeared. Niehaus said the youth is believed to be hiding in the Transkei region.

In many ways, Biehl was an innocent casualty of the black hatred that many generations of white domination here has produced.

She was driving three black friends home in Guguletu, an impoverished black township, last Aug. 26 when a brick suddenly smashed the windshield of her Mazda. Covered in blood, she was pulled from the car, kicked to the ground, and then stabbed in the chest and beaten in the face with a brick by furious black youths calling her "settler."

Despite earlier reports, testimony has shown that Biehl lived for at least half an hour after the attack. Despite her wounds, she was able to get up and climb into a police van, witnesses said. But instead of rushing her to the hospital, the officers took her to the Guguletu police station and laid her on the floor. She died there awaiting an ambulance.

Jacobs, who was not present during the attack, took Biehl's ashes home to Orange County after the funeral.

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