JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa's highest court overturned a controversial and widely criticized ruling yesterday, striking down the murder convictions of 21 black people, including 14 sentenced to hang for the 1985 mob murder of a black policeman.
The case attracted international attention after 25 people were convicted of murder because they were in the crowd when Constable Lucas Sethwala was beaten to death outside his home near the town of Upington.
Fourteen received the death penalty and the other 11 were given lesser sentences, ranging from suspended sentences to 12 years in prison.
No evidence was presented linking most of the group to the actual stoning, but all were identified as having been in the crowd. The trial judge, ruling under an unusual legal doctrine in South Africa, found that the mob acted with a "common purpose" of murder.
Justice E. M. Grosskopf, writing for the appeals panel, said that in order to convict a person of murder "it had to be proved that he had the intention to kill" and "generally speaking, that he had committed the act that had caused the death."
Twenty-one of the convictions were either thrown out or reduced from murder to public violence by a three-judge panel of the country's top appeals court in Bloemfontein yesterday. The court ordered the release of 11 who were on death row, and 10 of them walked out of the Pretoria Central Prison within hours.
The 14 included Evelina de Bruin, a grandmother in her 50s who was the only woman on South Africa's death row. The appeals court reduced her sentence from murder to public violence, and she was released.
"It's really the most remarkable judgment. We couldn't have hoped for better," Andrea Durbach, lawyer for the defendants, told reporters as the men filed out of prison wearing dark blue suits and dazed expressions. "It's a judgment that should have happened right from the start."
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that justice had been done "in a sense. . . . It just shows how scandalous the [original] judgment was."
The appeals court upheld the murder convictions of three of the 14 sentenced to death, saying evidence had shown that they took part in the attack on Constable Sethwala. But the court reduced their sentences from the death penalty to prison terms ranging from 10 to 12 years.
The court upheld the eight-year sentence of one defendant for murder.
Constable Sethwala was killed as he fled his home after a mob gathered outside and began stoning it. His mother, sister and two neighbors identified the 25 defendants as having been in the pTC crowd of about 300, which had come from an anti-apartheid rally.
The attack took place during the height of township uprisings against the apartheid system in the mid-1980s, when black policemen and black town council members were targeted by activists who labeled them collaborators with the white regime.
Constable Sethwala was beaten to death and set afire.
During the trial, all 25 defendants denied any involvement in the attack, and several presented alibis that they were elsewhere at the time of the incident.
Justice Grosskopf said the state had the burden of disproving the alibis but had failed to do so during the trial.