From the news desk

‘We salute the judge’ – emotional scenes as Courtney Pieters’ killer gets two life terms

There were tears of relief, but also deep sadness after call centre operator Mortimer Saunders was given two life sentences by the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday for the rape and murder of 3-year-old Elsie’s River girl Courtney Pieters.

“It truly won’t bring the child back, but I am happy,” said her mother, Juanita, wiping her eyes with a wad of tissues.

Saunders, the son of a priest, had lodged in the same house as Juanita in Elsie’s River, Cape Town, yet the court found that because of “ill feelings” towards her, he gave her child ant poison, choked her, beat her and raped her.

He carried her tiny body down a public road and buried her in a shallow grave in nearby Epping Industria. Her body was found after an agonising and prolonged search of the area in May 2017.

Courtney’s mother hugged and thanked prosecutor Esmeralda Cecil, who assured her that Saunders, 41, would only be eligible to apply for parole after he had served the first 25 years of his sentence.

Courtney’s father, Aaron Fourie, stood silently with friend Colin Sellar on the steps outside the court.

“I am very happy,” said Fourie of the life sentences.

He and Sellar held a yellow laminated home-made poster with a picture of Courtney that read “Rest in Peace My Dear Child”.

Automatic life sentences

Below it was a picture of a tin of insect repellent and a picture of Saunders with the words “Target jou kakkerlak” (Target your cockroach) printed on it.

In handing down sentence Judge Babalwa Pearl Mantame said the first thing she had to take into account was that Courtney was below the age of 16 when she was raped and murdered, and that automatically puts Saunders in line for life sentences.

She had taken into account his background as a matriculant from Elsie’s River High School who went on to obtain a marketing diploma.

He had been working at a call centre when he committed the crimes.

He had been brought up in a good environment, albeit with his parents not always present due to their own work pressures.

He had tried to send money to his parents whenever he could, and had been sober for 18 months when he killed Courtney, after a period of excessive drinking.

Mantame said it was not clear whether he sent maintenance money for his two children, and noted that he was single.

Mantame said that Saunders had written a letter of apology to Courtney’s parents shortly before argument for sentencing began.

40% of rapes against children

She said this seemed to be an attempt at saving himself, having not testified.

“This letter of apology is nothing other than an afterthought,” said Mantame.

On the other hand, Courtney’s family was still suffering, and had retreated “into their shells”. Courtney’s sibling also seems to blame herself for what happened.

Mantame said 40% of all rapes in South Africa are committed against children, and so the courts must be consistent with their sentencing to curb the spread of crime.

The deciding factors for Mantame were that the offence was planned, there was a lack of remorse and Saunders had abused the trust of a defenceless child.

“In the circumstances, a long period of imprisonment will afford him time to reflect on his actions,” she said.

When she handed down the sentences people in the public gallery let out a whoop.

Many had joined the search parties for the missing child, scraping at the ground for clues, lifting old mattresses, sifting through piles of discarded clothing, in the hopes of finding her alive after her disappearance.

Grateful community

After the sentencing, National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said: “We hope that it does send a very clear message that crimes of this nature will not be tolerated in our communities.”

He said while statics of crimes against women and children in the province were “very scary” the NPA would work hard to prosecute these matters successfully.

He also thanked the community for helping solve the case.

He explained that Saunders could only apply for parole at the end of his first life sentence, which is in 25 years’ time.

Elsie’s River resident Menecia Botha expressed gratitude to Judge Mantame and prosecutor Cecil outside the court.

“We asked the judge for life sentences and we got them. So we as a community are very happy about it. And we salute the judge and Esmeralda,” she said.

Source: News24

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