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South African Rugby Players Sentenced on Murder Charges - 2002-05-02


A South African judge has sentenced two white rugby players to 18 years in prison for the murder of a black teenager. Many South Africans believe it was a racist hate crime. The judge said prosecutors failed to prove the murder was racially motivated. Judge Bernard Ngoepe handed down a sentence of 18 years in jail for Riaan Botha and Ben Korff. They were convicted last month of killing 19-year-old Tshepo Matloha by stomping on his head and chest.

During the trial, the court heard that the white rugby players beat the black teenager to death after catching him and two friends hunting for rabbits on a farm owned by Botha's mother.

Botha and a third rugby player, Korbus Joubert, also received separate four-year prison terms for what is termed "defeating the ends of justice." They were found guilty of throwing Mr. Matloha's body into a crocodile-infested lake in an effort to keep the crime from being discovered.

Nine members of the Noordelikes rugby club were originally charged in the case, but charges were dropped against four of them. Two others were acquitted.

Neither side appears very happy with the 18-year prison terms. Lawyers for Botha and Korff say they plan to appeal the sentences.

Outside the courthouse, a group of demonstrators protested against the sentences, saying they were too lenient. Mr. Matloha's parents have said they wanted their son's killers to spend the rest of their lives in jail.

The so-called "rugby murder trial" has been one of the most highly publicized and controversial court cases in South Africa's recent history. Many South Africans believe the murder was racially motivated. And, prosecutors attempted to prove through testimony that the killers used racial epithets as they chased after the poachers and then beat Mr. Matloha to death.

But Judge Ngoepe said the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that race was a factor in the murder. He called the crime vicious and cowardly, especially because Mr. Matloha was unarmed.

But he said the murder appeared to be unplanned, and all of the defendants were first-time offenders.

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