‘Endless postponements hampering state’s case against Briton charged with starting fire’

CAPE TIMES

Reporter: Melanie Gosling

ANTHONY Cooper, 36, the Briton charged with starting a wildfire on Table Mountain in January, will be lucky if his case is heard this year. After Cooper’s brief appearance in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court on Friday, the case was postponed for the third time and referred to the regional court. Cooper’s attorney, Reaz Khan, said yesterday: “Now that it’s gone to the regional court, it could be heard in June next year.” The case initially drew extensive interest from the public, angry at the increasing frequency of runaway fires on the Peninsula where the culprits are seldom brought to book. Here was a case where witnesses claimed to have seen Cooper tossing his stompie from a car on Tafelberg Road on the day of the fire. Since then, the case has limped along. Cooper, charged with arson and culpable homicide – because a British tourist died in the fire – first appeared in court on February 10. The case was postponed to March 31, then to May 28 and now to June 28. The prosecutor, Juanita Swart, asked for the postponement because the state was still waiting for a “fire report” and a statement from one witness. Khan objected to yet another postponement, saying there had clearly been negligence in the investigation. He suggested that the court, which had granted a final postponement in March, would be condoning the state’s negligence should it grant another postponement. Magistrate Herman van der Merwe agreed it was “extremely unacceptable” that no one had bothered to take the witness’s statement, but postponed the case. Yesterday Khan said: “When I spoke to the investigating officer the first time, he was trying to obtain a witness statement. That was five months ago. Now I believe there is some report still outstanding on the amount of damage the fire caused. “I raised my objection because at the last appearance I asked that the next appearance, May 26, be marked ‘final’ and it was. Now it’s postponed again.” Khan said he believed the outstanding witness statement was from a taxi driver who apparently saw Cooper flick his stompie out of the car window. He said the public prosecutor had asked him on Friday to consider a plea bargain. He and his client had declined. “Then I asked the senior prosecutor to consider withdrawing the charges. I’ve been in touch with fire experts and in my opinion the state does not have a strong case against my client, unless they come across further evidence. “The senior prosecutor didn’t even know it was on the roll for Friday or that the postmortem report had been completed”, Khan said.