The case against Jason Rohde

Ever since that horrifying morning in July 2016 when Jason Rohde’s wife, Susan (47), was found dead behind the bathroom door of their suite at a top Cape wine estate with an electrical cord tied around her neck, the property mogul has been fighting to keep himself out of jail.

Today he will find out his fate. The Western Cape High Court is on Thursday expected to deliver judgment.

His legal team maintains it was suicide but the state is convinced it can prove Jason (49) strangled his wife in suite 221 of the hotel at Spier Wine Farm near Stellenbosch.

After months of hearing expert witnesses testifying about what could have happened that morning, South Africans were riveted in June when Jason finally took the stand in the high court in Cape Town to give his version of events.

Was he telling the truth? It will ultimately fall to Judge Gayaat Salie-Hlophe to decide but Jason’s account did offer never-before-heard details about the events leading up to Susan’s death that weekend at the estate where the former CEO of Sotheby’s International SA was attending a business conference.

We take a look at some of the most fascinating information to come out of Jason’s testimony and ask experts to weigh in with their opinion.

He didn't want his wife to attend the conference

Despite there being a rule that no spouses were allowed to attend the Lew Geffen International Realty Franchises conference Susan insisted on accompanying her husband.

Jason Rohde

The Johannesburg father of three admitted he was terrified at the prospect of his wife being at the conference because he feared it could lead to a nasty showdown with his mistress, Cape Town estate agent Jolene Alterskye (37), who was also there.

"I was thinking the whole time something was going to happen, so I made an effort not to be seen close to Jolene."

The other woman

Jason testified that he’d broken things off with Jolene after Susan had found out about her in February 2016 but in the weeks leading up to the conference he’d rekindled the affair.

He admitted that when he travelled to Cape Town for work he hooked up with his mistress and they had sex. Jason revealed that even though Susan was keeping a close eye on him at the conference, he managed to meet Jolene for about 10 minutes in a quiet corner.

"We said hello to each other," he said. But he added he hasn't seen Jolene since Susan's death.

"She messaged me to ask how I was but other than that I’m not seeing her," he said.

His marriage was a warzone

Jason revealed he and his wife frequently argued about little things.

"Susan and I weren't a happy couple," he said.

He said she ate and slept little and was obsessed about his relationship with Jolene, often waking him up in the early hours to quiz him about the affair.

He claimed Susan would call him up to 15 times a day and would take his phone away from him when he returned home from work at night.

Jason Rohde

Things reached boiling point at the conference. On the Saturday evening as they got ready for a black-tie prize-giving Jason told Susan he couldn’t be late because he was sitting at the main table. He claims she flew into a rage and opened a bottle of wine, which she started drinking straight out of the bottle.

He left and she later joined him outside the function venue so they could walk in together.

Fight night 

Jason says when the function ended at about 2am colleagues invited him to an after-party but Susan put her foot down and refused to allow him to go. He said he returned with her to their suite because he didn’t want to make a scene.

While Susan was undressing he sneaked off to the bathroom to send a quick text to Jolene but Susan caught him.

"She just went loose [she lost it]. Apoplectic. Beyond furious. She told me what a lying deceitful f**king bastard I was."

He said he retaliated verbally and it soon became nasty. "We moved out of the bathroom. I told Susan I wanted to leave the room. I put my green jersey on and we argued. We had a major, major row.

"It was a loud conversation. We weren’t talking to each other, we were verbally shouting at each other and using ugly words. It was back and forth. We were screaming at each other, both using vulgar language."

He admitted that as he moved to the door to leave and Susan blocked his way it turned into "a physical altercation".

"It culminated in me taking my right hand and moving her away. It continued for 30 seconds, a minute maybe. While this was happening we were still verbally shouting at each other. I was telling her to leave me alone and she was obviously responding."

Jason then left the suite to join colleagues in another room for a drink but Susan followed him in her dressing gown and confronted him.

In a statement read out to the court earlier he said that as they were making their way back to the suite she tripped and landed in a flower bed, allegedly cutting her toe.

He says during the evening he realised that divorce was the only option.

"I said yes, I’ve had enough, Sue. This is it. I’m done. I can’t do this any longer." He said all the arguing had worn him out and when they returned to the suite he got into bed and went to sleep.

"I can’t fight for three hours like Susan can fight. I just don’t have the strength."

 
Jason Rohde

The next morning

Jason claims Susan got up at 7am and went to the en-suite bathroom. After she left the bed he says he fell asleep again.

Later when he wanted to use the toilet he found the bathroom door was locked. When Susan failed to emerge he called reception and a maintenance worker, Desmond Daniels, was sent to help him open the bathroom door using a screwdriver.

When they got the door open they discovered Susan’s body hanging from a hook at the back of the door. Under cross-examination Jason insisted he hadn’t strangled his wife and staged it to look like a suicide.

"The option was divorce, not murder. I made a lot of mistakes but I’m not a murderer," he said.

He admits he lied

Jason admitted that in his initial statement to police he’d downplayed the physical altercation he’d had with his wife in the hours before her death.

But he claims he did it because family members, including his father-in-law, Neville Holmes, were present and he felt embarrassed.

"Who wants to say or admit he had a wrestling match with his wife in front of the family?" he said. He also admitted he kept Susan in the dark about how he’d rekindled his affair with Jolene.

"Bottom line is you’ve got to be deceitful. Otherwise it’s not an affair," he said.

What the legal experts say

Forensic testimony will be important and might help determine whether it was suicide or not, says Llewellyn Curlewis, a senior lecturer in criminal procedure law at the University of Pretoria.

He says the state pathologist’s testimony might make or break the state’s case.

"If the pathologist’s findings are inconsistent with the accused’s version of events the accused will be in trouble."

André Kirsten, a Cape Town lawyer specialising in criminal law, believes Susan’s broken ribs could be difficult for the defence to explain if the court accepts Coetzee-Khan’s forensic evidence.

"In relation to a suicide it means the lady would’ve had to put a cord around her neck and hang herself but she’d have had to do it while in unbearable pain and coughing up blood," he adds.

Some of the aspects that have left Kirsten puzzled are Susan’s extensive injuries, the load-bearing capacity of the door hook on which she allegedly hanged herself, the load-bearing capacity of the curling iron cord and also the marks on Susan’s neck.

"The pathologist has insisted there are no friction marks [from the cord] around Susan’s neck," Kirsten says.

Another thing that intrigues him is the issue of the bathroom door lock, which testimony has revealed could easily be opened from the outside with a coin.

"For me that’s a big question mark. If it’s really true that the door was so easy to open, why did the accused go and search for someone to help him open the door instead of opening it himself?"

But in his testimony Jason claimed he isn’t technically minded and had no idea it was so easy to open the door.

Kirsten thinks Jason comes across quite well on the stand. "His answers seem mostly direct and to the point and he doesn’t appear arrogant. Some of his responses seem quite scripted though."

His body language: what it reveals

Jason Rohde’s general demeanour on the witness stand he creates the perception that he’s a man of reason and logic who’s willing to cooperate with the legal process, says Denise Björkman, a body language expert from Johannesburg.

"His tone of voice is one of studied confidence and his intelligence shows in his ability to parry questions with a rhetorical question," she adds.

But Björkman is more interested in what he conveys with his body language rather than his words. She points out that earlier in the trial he had a habit of clenching his jaw and thrusting it slightly forward, which made him look like a boxer. But now he seems to have changed his approach.

"He seems to be pursuing one of accommodation and collaboration."

She says his eyebrows are frequently lowered, which indicates he’s trying not to give too much away.

"This is an unconscious and evolutionary response to hide the eyes – it suggests a deep-seated anxiety. This response is found in primates as well as humans when conflict is expected and the person is going in prepared."

She says when he demonstrated in court how he held Susan’s neck during their altercation his voice sounded shaky and slightly strident. This is because when a threat is apparent the throat literally closes and causes the voice to strain.

Björkman says that from the start Jason has come across as a man who takes pride in his appearance.

She says the dark suits and ties and white shirts he wears project an image of someone who’s civilised, professional, in control and an upstanding member of the community.

His pants are narrower than usual for his age and position – particularly at the ankle, Björkman adds. This suggests he wants to look young and attractive.

She says based on the outward signs he’s giving she’s inclined to believe he’s stressed rather than depressed.

"Depressed people are less likely to groom themselves perfectly. Anxious people will give more attention to detail."