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S. Africa Trial in Killing of U.S. Student Ends : Law: Judge's verdict due later this month in murder of Amy Biehl of Newport Beach. Three men face life in prison if convicted.

October 13, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — After 11 weary months in court, prosecutors and defense lawyers completed closing arguments Wednesday in the trial of three youths accused of murdering California exchange student Amy Biehl last year.

Gerald Friedman, a provincial Supreme Court judge, said he will deliver his verdict Oct. 24. South Africa does not have jury trials.

If convicted of the gruesome, apparently racially motivated killing, the three men could face life imprisonment. The death penalty is still on the books, but the new government has halted executions.

Biehl, a 26-year-old scholar and athlete from Newport Beach, was completing her tour as a Fulbright scholar when she was beaten and stabbed to death Aug. 25, 1993, by an anti-white mob in Guguletu, a black township outside Cape Town.

She is believed to be the only American killed during fierce political violence in the run-up to April's multiracial elections. She was working on women's issues and voter education programs.

All three defendants are members of PASO, the militant youth wing of the radical black nationalist Pan Africanist Congress. Testimony indicated they were coming from a PASO meeting and were among a mob stoning vehicles and chanting "Kill the settler!"--a derogatory term used for whites--when Biehl was attacked.

A fourth defendant, who fled last year after being released as a juvenile, is now in custody awaiting trial. Prosecutors withdrew charges against two other suspects after a key witness said he was too frightened to testify, but prosecutors said the pair may be rearrested after the verdict. A seventh suspect has been killed in township violence.

Much of the trial was devoted to a lengthy hearing of defense claims that police had beaten confessions from the three defendants. The "trial within a trial" heard 27 witnesses, while only seven witnesses testified during the rest of the case.

Ultimately, the judge ruled that incriminating statements by Mzikhona Nofemela, 21, and Vusumzi Ntamo, 21, would be admitted as evidence. He disallowed a confession by Mongezi Manquina, 22, the only member of the group to take the stand in his own defense. In contrast to the United States, here a defendant's refusal to testify may be held against him.

Prosecutor Nollie Niehaus argued that the confessions, and testimony given by three surprise eyewitnesses--who appeared at the end of the trial and whose names were withheld after they complained of death threats--"abundantly" proved his case.

But defense lawyer Justice Poswa insisted the witness accounts were "inconsistent," "improbable" and "actual lies." He offered no alibi for the defendants, however, and called no witness other than Manquina. He complained repeatedly that he was "rushed" into preparing for trial.

Prosecution witnesses said Biehl was driving three black friends home from her farewell party when her Mazda was pelted with stones and forced to stop. Bleeding from the face, she stumbled from the car and was chased to a nearby gas station where she was robbed, beaten and stabbed. She later died on the floor of a police station.

A coroner testified that Biehl was stabbed above the right eye, had her skull fractured and was stabbed in the heart. Witnesses said both Manquina and Nofemela chased Biehl from the car with knives and repeatedly stabbed and kicked her.

Ntamo admitted in his confession that he threw bricks at Biehl as she lay bleeding on the ground and "hit her three times on the head." He also said Manquina had boasted "he was proud to have killed a white person."

The trial initially drew a packed gallery of the defendants' supporters, some of whom chanted anti-white slogans and taunted Biehl's family members when they visited.

But only a handful of spectators showed up for the summation.

The trial has dramatically highlighted the challenges the post-apartheid government faces trying to reform a judicial and law enforcement system in which police investigations still are often limited to obtaining confessions, frequently by force, from suspects.

In this case, investigators recovered no clothing, fingerprints, weapons or any other evidence from the crime scene.

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