08 October 2009

The right verdict

The court so made the right decision in this case, says CyberShrink. Here's why.


Considering what the court has found her to have done, many people will find the guilty verdict in the Cezanne Visser/Advocate Barbie trial very satisfying.

But the wisdom of this ruling will have more wide-ranging benefits. We can feel deeply relieved that the court so sensibly rejected the appalling psychological testimony the defence offered as an excuse for her prolonged series of episodes of bad behaviour.

As in the similarly notorious Najwa Petersen case, naïve "expert" evidence with poor scientific backing, poor logic and sinister potential implications for later cases, was shrewdly rejected by the Court.

The risks of bad science
There seemed to be a sharp revision of defence tactics after the unpleasant Advocate Prinsloo skipped the country. All the blame was placed entirely on his usefully absent shoulders, assisted by "expert" testimony. Much of this testimony appeared to be naïvely unaware of the bulk of the good research in the field it seemed to rely on. Had this testimony been accepted by the court, it could have created a disastrous precedent for other cases.

Apparently in order to keep the prosecution budget down, the state did not call suitable expert witnesses of its own to refute the mischievous technical ideas put forward in the defence case. This left a real risk that dangerous precedents could have been set, enabling many other perpetrators having the gall to pretend to be victims, to seek to get away with their offences.

As an expert in this particular field for many years, I was very concerned about the severe damage that could have been done here, and glad that this danger seems to have been averted. We are lucky that a judge with sufficient wisdom and perceptiveness to reject these arguments was presiding in this case.

The devil made me do it
The defence expert seemed to offer a novel combination of the 'abuse excuse' and "The devil made me do it" excuse, with something very like a claim of brain-washing, rather than the Battered- Woman Syndrome (BWS) which was referred to so inaccurately.

It was argued unconvincingly that Prinsloo had so abused Visser that she became an utterly helpless automaton, with no will of her own, no ability whatever to withstand his requests, or even what she imagined he might want. I worked in the field of psychological trauma and abuse in Britain, Canada and America with war veterans and others who had suffered severe and deforming stress. This was even before we had the diagnosis of PTSD to apply to some of the consequences of such stress.

The defence arguments just didn't hold together. The sort of extreme automatism they wanted us to assume occurred here is actually very rare (as depicted quite well in the first great film of The Manchurian Candidate). It requires the dominant person to be in total control of the subject and her environment. It requires skills we have no evidence Prinsloo ever possessed, deliberately and carefully applied in a planned regimen. It does not occur spontaneously or accidentally.

Idols disaster
And even then one would have to be very wary of allowing the person to stray from the controlled setting in which this atmosphere is created. To have sent Visser off on her own to audition for the TV series Idols would have been foolhardy; and when we saw her at those auditions, she showed absolutely no signs of being under such influence of anyone, even if she did show an unrealistic estimation of her singing skills. There was a strong echo of the Svengali and Trilby story, except that Svengali had to be present to maintain control over Trilby when she sang.

There was no evidence of the degree of control, abuse and coercion necessary for even some of the effects claimed. At all times it was noticeable that the only evidence that fitted this theory was that provided by Visser herself, a very intelligent advocate, who was very aware of what would best suit the needs of her legal defence.

There was no evidence of actual abuse from Prinsloo. She generally sounded like a rather eager participant, submissive in a masochistic fashion, rather than actually compelled by him to comply. Even her own shrink admitted that she could, throughout the process, distinguish right from wrong. Without good evidence to back him, he was claiming that she was unable to act according to this knowledge and was somehow helpless to do anything other than follow Prinsloo's instructions .

Bimbo, not Bambi
She showed more autonomy than merely following his instructions, such as when she pushed a banana into herself, saying: "It was something I knew he'd like". A mere eagerness to please does not amount to automatism. She has said she felt sorry for their victims - again not typical of BWS, but easily claimed by a sly defendant trying another mode of seeking sympathy. Her portrayal of innocence was unconvincing - this was Bimbo, not Bambi. In short, she seemed to have been flattered, not battered.

Weird testimony
Her mother's conduct seems to have been distinctly odd. When, in the car, apparently to her surprise, her daughter leaned over and performed fellatio on Prinsloo, who was driving, she didn't protest, or even point out the obvious danger of continuing to drive (something surely far more distracting than cellphone usage). She lay down on the back seat and pulled a coat over her head. That response is simply weird. On the occasions where she appeared to have been drugged, and, for instance, awoke to find herself nude - again, no protest is reported; she didn't call the police, or draw the obvious conclusions. She seems to have been almost pathologically incurious.

Battered-woman Syndrome
Though there is no such syndrome (as distinct from PTSD, which does exist), battered women do at times show surprising compliance in terms of remaining with or returning to their abuser - but they do not generally join him in abusing others. And the syndrome, where it has been referred to in Courts, was used to attempt to justify the battered woman turning on and assaulting or killing her abuser - not harming other people. I have not found precedent for citing this syndrome to explain or mitigate criminal conduct towards third parties, let alone towards other victims of abuse.

Remaining puzzles in the cas
It's not clear where and how Prinsloo obtained the drugs needed to do what was described in court. Yes, some sedative tablets are obtainable on the street, but usually not in injectable form. And then he would have needed syringes and needles, too. This seems to have been left unexplored, but maybe we'll learn more when Prinsloo is returned to South Africa.

They had a secretary. Why? Apart from reportedly posing for nude pictures with Cezanne, what was her usual daily work? The zombie Barbie described in her own evidence would have been hard put to it, to do anything on any day, other than obey Dirk. The existence of such a post, reputedly working for both of them, implied that both were engaged in some form of work, presumably legal, needing typing, copying, and other such secretarial tasks. The context for the lurid activities was lacking. During the relevant period, how did they pass their time when not engaged in sex? And what occupied the secretary? One usually doesn't take minutes at an orgy.

The psychological report seemed to show no appropriate scepticism about the claims being made, or the obvious motivation to create an extenuating story. And some claims seemed to arrive in court not in statements Visser would have had to make under oath, but by claims she made to the psychologist, who then conveniently reported them to the court.

"Professor Johan Lemmer"
Earlier in the case, it was reported that there'd be testimony from "Professor Johan Lemmer", described as a "sexologist" who had apparently assessed and treated Visser, and who was said to have later married her mother. Disappointingly, perhaps, he seems not to have testified. I searched for information about him on the internet, and could find no sign that he has ever held a true professorial appointment at any recognised university. He was shown as running a rather odd Academy of Sexology in Pretoria, which he seems to have established himself, and which does not describe itself as recognised or registered by the Dept. of Education or any of the relevant licensing authorities. Maybe he awarded himself the title of Professor there.

According to its website, the Academy appeared to offer to award degrees, from Bachelors to Ph.Ds, none of which would be recognised anywhere else. He was listed on his own website as the founder of "Sexology S.A.", and his qualifications, including a doctorate from UNISA (with a thesis on how a congregation understands a sermon) are listed as BA. BD, and DTh - not recognised qualifications for any form of clinical activity, as a "sexologist" (not a profession or speciality recognised officially in this country) or in any other way, but is described as practising at a Pretoria Hospital. He seems to have self-published some books.

I have been very impressed by the judgement, as reported, of Pretoria High Court Acting Judge Chris Eksteen whose judgement sounds outstandingly observant and appropriately sceptical. He found, wisely, no convincing evidence that she was ever the helpless pawn she and her psychologist witness claimed. We await the December hearing to hear what sentence will be applied. State and Defence may produce further expert reports to inform such sentencing, but it is very hard to see what convincing arguments there could be for leniency.

(Professor M. A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, October 2009)




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