OPINION: Learning lessons from cutting deals with crooks

If there is one thing we know about the underworld, gangsters and criminals, it is that the arena they operate in is murky, clouded by confusion, speculation, allegations, agendas and counter claims. There are varying versions of the truth and some have more credence than others.

The unraveling mystery of the murder of Teazers owner Lolly Jackson is a prime example. The 'King of Sleaze', as he was so notoriously known, was gunned down at a house in Edleen in Kempton Park in May 2010. For years the narrative advanced by law enforcement authorities was that a small-time crook and crack addict George Louca was responsible for the shooting. This was because one of Louca's associates, Czech fugitive Radovan Krejcir, had told authorities that Louca had arrived at the Harbour Restaurant in Bedfordview in the hours after the shooting and confessed to killing Jackson. Former Gauteng Crime Intelligence head Joey Mabasa also stated publicly that Louca had called him to admit to pulling the trigger.

It came as no surprise then that the Hawks team prosecuting Louca is looking to use Krejcir as a star witness in their case against the Cypriot. He is one of the only really noteworthy witnesses named on the official witness list, apart from a litany of cops and forensic experts.

But now Louca has come out with his own version of events in a sworn statement, saying it was actually Krejcir who killed Jackson. Louca says he fled the country because he feared for his own life and that he had actually called Mabasa to tell him what Krejcir had done. Louca is looking to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to drop the charges against him. But in order to do that, the NPA would then have to agree to use Louca as its star witness against Krejcir.

So in essence, here you have two fairly dubious, nefarious characters, each with their own versions of the truth. Prosecutors will have to decide which one they will use against the other in this confusing 'he said, he said' scenario. If they do believe Louca's version, they will also then have to decide whether to grant him indemnity from prosecution as per Section 204 of the Criminal Procedure Act, or possibly enter into a plea deal with a reduced sentence as per Section 105a.

The NPA has a number of fairly disastrous and embarrassing examples of cutting deals with crooks to learn from. Perhaps in light of former National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi's recent death, they would do well to take heed of what happened in his case.

In Operation Bad Guys, the Scorpions investigation into Selebi, the Kebbles and the criminal network around them, prosecutors set a number of dominos in motion in order to leverage complicity. They gave the three self-confessed hit men and security boss Clinton Nassif '204s', indemnity from prosecution, in exchange for their testimony against Glenn Agliotti. This then put pressure on Agliotti to do a deal in order to testify against his friend Jackie Selebi. Agliotti and Nassif received suspended sentences in a massive drug bust in order to secure their testimony against Selebi. Also, Agliotti was offered a '204', indemnity from prosecution, to testify in Selebi's corruption trial but the judge in that case didn't grant it as he found Agliotti had not been entirely truthful.

It all sounds rather confusing but the long and the short of it is that the prosecutors cut deals with everyone except Selebi, in order to convict the erstwhile commissioner. In essence, they achieved their goal and Selebi was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. But at what cost?

No one else involved in this horribly sordid affair was ever brought to justice. Mikey Schultz, the man who pulled the trigger killing Brett Kebble, has always been the first to admit 'We got away with murder'. Where in the world do you admit to killing someone and not spend one day in jail?

Let's reflect on where this strategy has left the country today - Selebi landed up serving just 229 days of his sentence before being released on medical parole. He has now died. Despite not receiving his '204', Agliotti was never prosecuted for corrupting Selebi. Sure, he got a suspended sentence in the drug deal so he now carries the label 'convicted drug dealer', but he never actually did any time. Nassif never spent any time in jail either. And the shooters, Schultz and his two associates, are free men living their lives.

Former National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) Vusi Pikoli has always justified the decision to cut these deals by saying it is 'international best practice' to go after the 'button men', the guys on the ground, in order to bring down the kingpins. 'What could be worse than a corruption national police commissioner?' was his argument.

There is certainly merit to that argument - you have to use crooks to catch crooks. But it does come at a price. It is left to the NDPP to decide whether the cost is worth the conviction and whether it is a gamble worth taking.

The Shrien Dewani trial is another example of how the strategy can backfire if it is implemented incorrectly in practice. Deals were cut with all three of the main protagonists in order to secure their testimony against the one man prosecutors thought to be the mastermind in his wife Anni's murder.

Taxi driver Zola Tongo effectively received 17 years off a potential 25-year jail sentence in return for his testimony. Hijacker Mziwamadoda Qwabe got eight years off a 25-year-jail term. So-called middle man Monde Mbolombo was offered immunity from prosecution. All three were disastrous in the witness box, with Dewani's lawyer labeling the state's case 'a cesspit of contradictions'. The judge rejected their evidence which was blatantly confusing and factually incorrect and found that Mbolombo's immunity deal should not be granted, leaving him open to be charged with murder.

Insiders say the witnesses weren't well prepared to take the stand and that prosecutors had a nightmare in jail trying to consult with them. Some also suggest that the deals were made too hastily, leaving nothing for the witnesses to gain when they took the stand. In short, there wasn't enough of a carrot to dangle before them.

The image of Shrien Dewani climbing onto a plane and jetting off back to the UK after a protracted extradition process and a spectacle of a trial would have been an embarrassing low point for the prosecuting authority. It is something they would not want to see repeated with Louka, whom they also spent four years trying to get back to South Africa.

There are a myriad other cases for prosecutors to glean lessons from when it comes to cutting deals with criminals. The Director of Public Prosecutions in Gauteng and then ultimately the NDPP will have to think carefully when, and, if he offers Louca a deal, whether it be indemnity in terms of Section 204 or whether it is a plea deal with a reduced sentence. It will be a tantalising prospect for the prosecutors - Louca could hold all the secrets that will unlock the country's dangerous and dirty underworld. But if it all goes wrong, it could go horribly, horribly wrong.

Mandy Wiener is a freelance journalist and author working for Eyewitness News . Follow her on Twitter: @mandywiener