Lotter trial: Satan (or maybe God) made me do it

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

The primary function of a trial is to find out who is guilty of what, and to establish an appropriate sanction for that crime. Justifying the sanction chosen has traditionally involved either the belief that punishment could reform or rehabilitate offenders, or the notion that retribution is an appropriate disincentivising signal of how society condemns the criminal act in question.

Retribution and rehabilitation aren’t mutually exclusive, and nor is an introductory paragraph sufficient to explore the complexities of either of these justifications. I mention them simply to point out that a third function of the trial process seems to be finding favour, especially in cases of crimes involving the ‘occult’, defined here as cases in which defendants allege that God or Satan or the Tooth Fairy made them do it.

That third function involves neither retribution nor rehabilitation, but an apparent desire for a grand psychological narrative – a classic tale of confusion, deception and perhaps betrayal, if not some sort of epic drama where reality mimics the fantastic and fictional worlds of swords and sorcery. Instead of asking more straightforward questions of motive, this inclines us to view the criminal as also part victim, and to enquire after the manner in which they were confused or traumatised.

There have recently been a number of South African cases in which the criminal’s agency is brought into question via these deus ex machina devices which can serve to create the impression of diminished responsibility – and therefore play a part in motivating for diminished sentences while providing rich entertainment for the newspaper reader.

The Lotter trial is the most recent example – having “all the elements of a bestselling crime novel” according to TimesLive. Nicolette and Hardus Lotter killed their parents because God told them to, and not because they were looking for early access to their inheritance. But the simple claim that “God told me to murder my parents” lacks the requisite narrative richness to persuade a judge of diminished responsibility, so let’s add the ‘third son of God” to the mix, along with Harry Potter.

The third son of God is Mathew Naidoo, who persuaded the Lotter offspring that their father was a philandering Satanist. We haven’t yet been told who the second son is, but perhaps this detail will come to light later. The mother’s only crimes seem to have been having married for money alone, and to have been scouting around for men to have affairs with. You’d think that she’d at least be capable of salvation under those circumstances, rather than deserving to have Hardus attack her with a stun gun, punch her a little, and then sit on her for 15 minutes before Nicolette stabbed her repeatedly.

The domestic worker seems far more evil than the mother, yet she escaped any divinely-mandated punishment. As Nicolette puts it, “When you look at Harry Potter movies, some things are negative and some things are positive, and what I was experiencing was something negative” – and an example of a less controversial statement is difficult to find, unless you’re of the view that none of the Harry Potter movies to date have any redeeming features whatsoever.

Thanks to the education in evil obtained from these movies, Nicolette was able to discern that when the domestic worker retrieved hair from the drain, this was not part of a cleaning regimen at all. It was instead evidence of malign intent via witchcraft, which this particular domestic worker was known for after having arranged for a tokoloshe to repeatedly ‘spiritually rape’ Nicolette. Perhaps the tokoloshe feeds on human hair, but having only seen two Harry Potter movies, I doubt I’m qualified to assert this with any confidence.

It was Naidoo who came along and saved Nicolette from these trials, after her visits to eight different churches had no effect. He spoke to her in the voices of angels and demons, punched her in the face after she drank two shooters (the court reporting seems to indicate that Nicolette thought this was merited, because as a servant of God, she should not be consuming alcohol), but more importantly, he made the spiritual violations end.

A notable absentee from this trial to date is Kobus Jonker, who founded the Occult-Related Crime Unit in the South African Police Service in 1992. Since then, he’s made a living pretending that there is something metaphysical going on when confused people do bad things involving candles, goats, swords or anything generally considered “occult”. But we have heard from Pastor Leon van Assenderp, testifying in support of the Lotter’s plea of not guilty on the grounds that Naidoo made them commit the murders.

Van Assenderp has testified that the Lotters showed clear signs of demonic possession, and that they were in the early stages of an occultic movement with Naidoo as inspiration and ringleader. If the early stages are what it takes to get you to kill your parents, the later stages must be truly terrifying. But regardless of how likely it is that the Lotters believe this narrative – and regardless of the extent to which Naidoo does compared to the possibility that he was simply manipulating them – it’s entirely unclear what the role of this testimony is in court.

If our courts are going to take possession seriously as a hypothesis in criminal trials, they could at least require for it to be evidenced. If it’s true, as van Assenderp attests, that when they prayed for Naidoo, he “fell to the floor… We see this many times, but he fell forward. That doesn’t happen often. He had twists and turns. We observed that he was bound by some evil force”, then surely the judge needs to see this for himself? In other words, why is hearsay evidence involving ghostbusters being entertained in the first instance?

Part of the explanation is perhaps that the courts – as well as the public – love the narrative, and that all of us want to find some way to make the case for diminished responsibility on the part of the Lotters. If they can commit such a crime through no (or less) fault of their own, perhaps we can gain more sympathy when we do something wrong. But more likely, I’d suggest, is the possibility that the Lotters are confused or even somewhat insane – or that they and Naidoo simply colluded to gain access to the parents’ estate.

None of those possibilities are clarified by the sort of evidence provided by a van Assenderp, nor by the Potter-esque level of detail provided about the so-called occultic aspects of this case. When an accused suggests some mysterious cause for their crime, our response should not be to find some equally mysterious expert to offer evidence.

The outcome of entertaining this sort of evidence is quite simply to subvert the meaning of causality, where instead of pursuing the usual questions relating to motive, and focusing on testing the most plausible hypotheses, our guardians of the law act just as irrationally as some of those that appear before them.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.