Vincent Tabak, the Dutch national who murdered Joanna Yeates, apparently used Google to research the definitions of “murder”, “manslaughter” and “sexual assault” in the days and weeks after committing the egregious crime.

Tabak, no doubt, was trying to assess his prospects in employing a defence which, if he was caught, would allow him to admit to killing Yeates without conceding that it was murder.

According to reports, the misguided sexual predator even googled Shrien Dewani, the Bristol businessman accused of masterminding a plot to murder his wife in Cape Town during November 2010, although this may be down to the fact that both Dewani and Yeates are from Bristol in England.

Tabak’s internet search included research on how long it takes a body to decompose, which would have been vital to the defence he was obviously contemplating. If, for example, he knew that the body had decomposed before the autopsy took place, it would drastically reduce the risk of evidence of a sexual attack manifesting itself and allow for a defence which involved accidently strangling her while trying to keep her from screaming after he tried to kiss her.

If however the autopsy revealed substantial proof of attempted, or even actual, rape then the manslaughter defence would have been stillborn from the outset.

All of this makes me wonder how many other murderers or wannabee killers are out there using Google and other search engines to plan or refine their plots to remove unwanted victims from the gene pool.

If, for example, Dewani did mastermind a plot to simulate a hijacking to murder his honeymoon bride Anni as alleged, would this have involved researching the country with the highest rate of murder coupled to the worst conviction rate?

If that is the case then that, even more than the murder, is the biggest insult to South Africa of all.

Of course the two situations differ in that Tabak obviously did his research post-facto while Dewani, if he did murder his wife, did all the planning up front.

Unfortunately for would-be murderers this research is not going to assist their defence but rather, if anything, compromise it drastically.

Any lawyer knows that an accused who goes with the truth — or as close to it as possible — stands a far greater chance of acquittal than the genius who concocts a convoluted story designed to impress a court.

The only thing that the accused will (im)press is Buba’s pants at the prison laundry.

This is something that is easy to demonstrate in practice by means of a simple exercise.

All you need is two people.

The first person is going to be a witness to all the furniture and fixtures in their bedroom while the second has to create an imaginary bedroom with 30 items or more.

The parties then take turns cross-examining each other on the two bedrooms.

The first person will make mistakes but will generally know exactly where each item is and have a logical explanation why anything is misplaced.

The second person, who has created a bedroom in their mind, will keep getting the items and the placing thereof wrong because while the prosecutor can refer to his or her notes the witness has to remember where he or she supposedly said they were rather than rely on the memory of actual goods.

As soon as the “accused” gets into trouble the slips become more and more marked as the prosecutor reminds them of what they said earlier about an event or an item.

It has a catastrophic domino effect.

Another example of how amateur research can be disastrous can be seen in the trial of Dr Conrad Murray who is facing charges of manslaughter for the death of Michael Jackson.

The question that needs to be asked is whether it was the legal team or Dr Murray’s idea to suggest that the singer administered the lethal dose himself.

What is clear is that the research undertaken was a disaster because as soon as the prosecutors lead experts on Propofol the defence abandoned this avenue which, by the way, just happened to be their primary answer to the charge.

Dr Murray is not an expert on Propofol and the little he knew turned out to be dangerous to both Jackson and his own future.

Now when the jury retires to consider its verdict they will do so with the prosecutors words ringing in their ears — along the lines of: “Why did the accused try to suggest that Michael Jackson took the lethal dose when he knew all along that this was impossible. What was he covering up?”

As human beings the jury will probably disregard all the debate over the protocols for using this powerful drug and convict him for this obvious lie.

As such the use of search engines to research crimes, select locations where to commit them and even plan the defence to be adopted if caught is going to cause more problems for offenders and their lawyers than it will ever solve.

The reason people go to lawyers is not only for them to find the law relating to a crime but more importantly in order that they be able to interpret what the law is and explain how it is applied.

Murder is defined as the unlawful and intentional killing of another human being.

In reality interpreting the words “unlawful” and “intentional” is the subject matter of umpteen cases and books.

A superficial understanding of the definition — prior to committing murder — is therefore of little or no use at all.

If a person is genuinely innocent then the best and only “lie” to employ is the truth.

If a person is guilty then all the research and fabrication in the world is not going to assist you and, if anything, it will convict you far quicker than anything else.

Google at your peril.


  • Mike Trapido is a criminal attorney and publicist having also worked as an editor and journalist. He was born in Johannesburg and attended HA Jack and Highlands North High Schools. He married Robyn in 1984 (Mrs Traps, aka "the government") and has three sons (who all look suspiciously like her ex-boss). He was a counsellor on the JCCI for a year around 1992. His passions include Derby County, Blue Bulls, Orlando Pirates, Proteas and Springboks. He takes Valium in order to cope with Bafana Bafana's results. Practice Michael Trapido Attorney (civil and criminal) 011 022 7332 Facebook


Michael Trapido

Mike Trapido is a criminal attorney and publicist having also worked as an editor and journalist. He was born in Johannesburg and attended HA Jack and Highlands North High Schools. He married Robyn...

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