MURDER WITH A BLUNT INSTRUMENT

RONALD COHEN: 1970


A murder trial which attracted immense public interest, both at home and overseas, was that of millionaire Ronald Vivien Cohen, who battered his wife to death at their fashionable Constantia home on the evening of 5 April 1970. The motive for the killing was never established.

Ronald Cohen and Susan Johnson were married on 26 February 1963. He was thirty-four, a rich and successful businessman, and she was eighteen. It was his second marriage, his first having ended in divorce five years earlier. In 1967, Cohen bought two acres of land on 'millionaire's row'- Monterey Drive, Southern Cross, Constantia - for R12 000. The magnificent Spanish Moorish-type house he had built there was named Southcape.

On 30 March 1970, Susan Cohen took their two children, Jonathan (3) and Jacqueline (1), to the Wilderness for a week's holiday. Cohen himself was not able to go with them due to business pressures, but he spoke to his wife on numerous occasions during the week.

His marriage, he said, was 'extremely happy'. On the afternoon of 5 April, Cohen picked up his family at Cape Town airport and returned to Southcape at around 7 p.m. Half an hour later, Susan telephoned her father. She seemed to be happy, Mr Jonson said, and was glad to be back. After the children had been put to bed, Ronald and Susan had supper in the library.

At about 10.30 p.m., Cohen left the library to go to the toilet and was away he claimed, for about ten minutes. As he opened the door of the library, on his return, he saw his wife struggling with an intruder. The man, he said, was blond, about 27 to 29 years-old, with a V-shaped face, hollow cheeks and dressed in light sports wear. “They were both facing me,” he said. “He had his arm around her shoulders and was hitting her about the head with a white object. My wife had her arms stretched out towards me and was screaming. I rushed over towards them and tried to grapple with him. I found difficulty in getting of him as she was between us. In her desperation to get away she grappled with me. I do remember, vaguely, that I got him on the shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye I saw on a little table standing next to the settee, a bronze [ram's head] ornament. I grabbed it and lifted it up with the intention of hitting this man with it. From that time on I don't remember what happened. My next recollection was rising up towards the man. He was holding the heavy stone ornament with both his hands. I lifted up my hands and grabbed it.” Cohen noticed that the man was wearing brown gloves and then blacked out. The next thing he knew was that he was kneeling on the floor beside his wife and “…seeing this frightful spectacle of her head... the terrible injuries’.

In another wing of the house, Yvonne Merry, the Cohen's housemaid was in bed. Just before eleven o'clock, she heard four or five dull thuds then, after a pause, a few more. She assumed the thuds were caused by a door banging on the far side of the house. Shortly afterwards, she heard Cohen shouting for her and seconds later he burst into her room and switched on the light. “Come quickly,” he shouted, “someone's broken in...” She followed him to the library and saw Mrs Cohen lying on the floor.

The library door, which led out on to a terrace was open. Cohen, who was visibly shaken and apparently in great distress, was kneeling next to his wife. A few moments later, he got to his feet. “She has been murdered,” he said. “Call the police. I am going to get my gun and I am going out.”

Shortly after 11 p.m., Pinelands police control received an emergency telephone call from Cohen himself. “Please send the police,” he gasped. “My wife has been murdered, murdered, Murdered...”. The police arrived at Southcape less than ten minutes later where Cohen met them at the front door. He had blood on his shirt and there were bruises and scratches on his arms.

They found Mrs Cohen lying dead in the library. Her head was shattered and there was a massive wound over her right ear and temple, through which broken pieces of bone protruded. Rigor mortis had not yet set in. Near to the body lay the bronze cast of a ram's head, which weighed approximately three-and-a-half kilograms and a stone statuette. The articles, both of which had been wedding presents, were bloodstained.

Just after midnight, Lieutenant Floris Johannes Mostert, the head of the Murder and Robbery Squad, arrived at Southcape. Cohen described to him the sequence of events as he recalled them, but was vague on a number of key points. This made Lieutenant Mostert suspicious, particularly the fact that Cohen's recollection of the incident was extremely fragmentary from the point at which he grappled with the intruder. He couldn't say whether the intruder had bit him, or knocked him out, yet he could give a detailed description of the man. “He was smiling,” Cohen said, “like he was enjoying himself.” At about 2 a.m., Cohen was examined by the Wynberg District Surgeon, who found no evidence of a blow to the head. In the early hours of 6 April, Cohen was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. He was later released on R10 000 bail.

As the court date approached, public interest began to grow to fever pitch. Then, on 2 July, there occurred yet another startling development. On the morning of 2 July, Cohen visited the tailoring department of Markham's in Cape Town, where he had a suit fitting at about 11 a.m. As he was leaving the shop by the Street entrance, he claimed he glimpsed his wife's murderer on the opposite pavement. The killer, he said, was wearing a hat and carrying a blue airline bag. He immediately gave chase, but lost the man in Adderley Street. “If there was any doubt in my mind,” Cohen would either state at his trial, “It was removed by the fact that when he saw me, he started to run.” This story, however, was not confirmed by two Markham's tailors who had watched Cohen walk down the street after he left the shop. According to them, he neither ran nor shouted nor showed any sign of agitation. Nor did they see a man with a hat and a blue airline bag. A few days after this incident, Cohen placed an advertisement in a number of national newspapers.

Under the heading 'Do you know this man?' was a portrait, drawn by a local artist, of the man who had reputedly broken into Southcape on the night of 5 April. A R5000 reward was offered to anyone who could give information leading to the identification of the killer, but no one responded to the advertisement.

The trial of Ronald Cohen began at the Cape Town Criminal Sessions on 24 August 1970, with Mr Justice Beyers presiding. During his opening address, Mr A.J. Lategan, who represented the State, conceded that the prosecution had a difficult task to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Ronald Cohen had murdered his wife. However, as he pointed out, the circumstances surrounding the crime allowed for no other conclusion but that Cohen was guilty. Firstly, Cohen's claim that an intruder had entered the house and murdered his wife did not stand up to close scrutiny since there was neither 'spoor' nor 'trace' of the alleged killer. There was absolutely no evidence of a break-in. Secondly, there was no motive for the intruder to have entered the house: nothing was missing from the library and there was no indication whatsoever of a sexual assault on Mrs Cohen. And thirdly, the fact that the accused claimed to remember only certain unrelated details of the crime went against medical experience. Cohen recalled seeing his wife in the clutches of the man, but could not remember being struck on the head. In fact, there was no evidence at all to substantiate the claim by Cohen that he had been hit on the head. He also recalled the assailant's expression and that he was wearing brown gloves - but could not identify that the object, which he claimed the man was carrying. Cohen also remembered picking up the bronze statue at one point, but didn't know what happened after that. Nor could he remember what he thought as he knelt over his wife after the intruder had departed. These 'islands of memory', as they came to be known, were to become a controversial aspect of Cohen's trial for murder. Dr J.C. de Villiers, a neurosurgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital, maintained that it was 'impossible' to have 'two amnesias as a consequence of the type of light head injury Cohen received. “Islands of memory,” he pointed out to the court, “were associated with cases where head injuries are ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’ and where there was a long period of ‘blacking out’. Dr de Villiers also added that any head injury, which is severe enough to cause a loss of consciousness results in retrograde amnesia, which blots out the memory of the traumatic occurrence. This type of built-in protection prevents repeated recollection of a painful event. By claiming to recall only certain aspects of the night in question, Cohen unwittingly undermined his own defence and caused his account of the murder to lose credibility.

On 18 September, Ronald Cohen was found guilty of murdering his wife. As judgement was passed, Cohen leaned forward to where his father sat on the bench in front of the dock and patted him on the hand. Afterwards, looking pale but calm, he was led down to the cells.

Justice Beyers passed sentence on 21 September, after a weekend of 'very heavy thinking'. “I have no wish to prolong the agony,” he began on the Monday morning. “I have thought hard and I have no intention of passing the death sentence in this case. This is a case in which I feel the death sentence is not the appropriate one....”

Furthermore, he added, the whole tragedy would be even more tragic if the extreme penalty was demanded, since there were extenuating circumstances. Cohen appeared to have killed his wife in a moment of diminished responsibility, a conclusion, which the facts-supported as there was no indication of premeditation about the crime. “I am satisfied,” Justice Beyers concluded, “that Cohen committed the crime during a period of diminished responsibility.”

Ronald Cohen was sentenced to twelve years in prison. After serving five years of his sentence, he was released on parole on 21 September 1975. He returned to live in Cape Town where he was received by Mr and Mrs Jonson, his late wife's parents, who had looked after his two children during his absence. “I am eternally grateful to Mr and Mrs Jonson, whom I love dearly,” he declared. “I am thankful for everything they have done for my children and for their help in the last few years. Under the circumstances, it must have been hard for them.”

The term 'diminished responsibility' implies that the accused was suffering from an abnormality of the mind, which impaired judgement at the time the offence was committed. If pleaded successfully, a charge of murder is reduced to one of culpable homicide.

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