Thandi Sheryl Maqubela was acquitted of murder by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal on September 29, 2017. The Court ruled the trial evidence failed to establish her husband, Patrick Maqubela, didn’t die from natural causes in Cape Town, South Africa.
Patrick and Thandi Maqubela were married in September 1991. In the spring of 2009 Thandi was 54 and a director of health consultancy with Sawihb (Pty) Ltd. in Cape Town. Patrick was 60 and a Western Cape High Court judge in Cape Town. The couple was estranged, and Patrick had told Thandi he wanted to divorce.
Patrick’s decomposing body was found in bed in his apartment in Cape Town on June 7, 2009. When her husband’s body was discovered Thandi was at the couple’s Eastern Cape family farm. The medical examiner determined he had died two days earlier, on June 5, 2009.
Initially Patrick’s death was believed to be from natural causes. However, an investigation discovered evidence that Thandi had forged a document she purported was her husband’s will. Patrick’s estate was estimated to be worth about US$2.5 million (R20 million).* The suspect will provided for it to be split among Thandi and the three children she and Patrick had together. However, the will didn’t leave anything to Patrick’s son and daughter from a previous marriage.
Thandi was arrested on March 25, 2010 and charged with Patrick’s murder. She was also charged with forgery of the will and fraud upon her husband’s estate for relying on the forged will. A friend, Vela Mabena, who was married and had a theology degree, was also arrested, but only charged with murder.
A bail hearing was held six days after their arrests. Thandi was released on US$13,635 (R100,000) bail and Mabena was released on $US2,725 (R20,000 bail).** The prosecution told the judge that neither Thandi nor Mabena were a flight risk. In her bail application Thandi stated: “I am confident that the state’s case against me is non-existent. I deny any wrongdoing in relation to my late husband’s death.” Mabena’s bail application stated: “I am innocent.”
Thandi’s case was widely reported on in South Africa, and the press dubbed her the ‘Black Widow’ killer.
Thandi and Mabena’s bench (judge only) trial began in March 2013 in the Western Cape High Court. All the judges in that court recused themselves because Patrick had been one of their co-judges, so Judge John Murphy was brought in from Johannesburg to preside over the trial.
The prosecution’s narrative for Thandi’s guilt was she suffocated her husband, while the prosecution alleged Mabena assisted her in some unspecified way.
Thandi’s defense to the murder charge was Patrick died from natural causes. Professor Saayman, a special pathologist testified as a defense witness that it couldn’t be determined to a scientific certainty whether Patrick died from natural causes or suffocation. However, he further testified that Patrick had a serious heart condition, and the probable inference to be drawn from the medical evidence was that “there was a substantially greater likelihood” that the pathology in Patrick’s heart “could have caused his death” and that “the probabilities are that his heart killed him.” Prof. Saayman also testified: “I come to the conclusion that a doctor or a pathologist should first and foremost consider, from a probability perspective, natural causes as being the cause of death in this particular case.”
Mabena’s defense was he had no role in Patrick’s death. He didn’t provide any incriminating evidence against Thandi.
The prosecution also presented its evidence that Thandi forged her husband’s will and fraudulently tried to pass it off as genuine.
On November 6, 2013 Judge Murphy began reading his decision. Mabena was acquitted of murder and ordered released. However, Thandi fainted twice, the second time after she was found guilty of fraud and forgery. Judge Murphy adjourned reading the rest of her verdict until the next day.
On November 7 Thandi was convicted of murdering her husband for “causing his death by means unknown to the state.”
In finding Thandi guilty of murder Judge Murphy ruled the medical evidence about Patrick’s cause of death was inconclusive to a scientific certainty, even though the judge acknowledged that comprehensive medical evidence about Patrick’s post-mortem condition did not exclude the reasonable inference of sudden death by reason of cardio-pathology (ie, a natural death). However, the judge ruled the evidence proving Thandi had committed forgery and fraud demonstrated mendacity and a ‘consciousness of guilt’, so she had by an unknown and medically undetectable means caused her husband’s death.
Thandi’s bail was immediately revoked and she was taken into custody pending her sentencing.
On November 20, 2013 Thandi was sentenced to 15 years in prison for her murder conviction. She was also sentenced to three year concurrent prison sentences for her forgery and fraud convictions. Those sentences were to be served consecutive to her 15 year sentence for murder, so she would serve a total of 18 years in prison.
Thandi only appealed her murder conviction.
On September 29, 2017 the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa set-aside Thandi’s conviction and ordered that she be found not guilty on the basis the prosecution failed to introduce sufficient evidence to prove her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The appeals court ruled the trial judge erred by applying the scientific standard of scientific certainty in determining Patrick’s cause of death was inclusive, instead of applying the judicial standard of the assessment of probability. The trial evidence established that by the probability standard Patrick died from natural causes, and therefore there was no murder.
The court also ruled the trial judge erred finding Thandi guilty of murder by relying on evidence of her ‘consciousness of guilt’. In the absence of any other evidence, it could not prove an unlawful killing beyond a reasonable doubt.
With her acquittal, the 62-year-old Thandi can be released after serving 3 years and 11 months in custody. She has completed her three year sentence for forgery and fraud.
Click here to read Maqubela v The State (821/2015)  ZASCA 137 (South Africa Supreme Court of Appeal, 9-29-2017)
* On June 7, 2009 the exchange rate was 8.065 South African Rand to 1 US$. See, www.xe.com/currencytables/?from=ZAR&date=2009-06-07.
** On March 31, 2010 the exchange rate was 7/334 South African Rand to 1 US$. See,