Accused found not guilty over Table Mountain fire

Accused found not guilty over Table Mountain fire

17 February 2008

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South Africa — British national Anthony Cooper was on Thursday found not guilty of causing the fire on Table Mountain that allegedly caused the death of British tourist Janet Chesworth.

Cooper appeared in the Cape Town Regional Court, charged with culpable homicide, as well as contravening the National Forestry Act.

Magistrate Wilma van der Merwe said the truth of what happened on January 26 2006 lay somewhere between the versions of the state’s two witnesses and Cooper’s version.

She said she did not believe Cooper’s version, namely that he had smoked in his car and not outside as alleged, and that a spark from the matches he had used had flown out of his car window.

The fact that she did not believe him did not legally mean that his story could not be reasonably possibly true.

For this reason, she had to give Cooper the benefit of a doubt and acquit him on both charges.

‘Absolute rubbish’
On Wednesday, Cooper told of his frantic efforts to put out the fire on the slopes of Table Mountain — caused by a cigarette he allegedly flicked from his fingers as he stood smoking near his car.

Cooper testified after Van der Merwe dismissed an application launched by his lawyers, Reuben Liddell and Joe Weeber, for his acquittal on both counts.

Van der Merwe said Cooper had been the only person in the vicinity of the fire when it started.

Cooper told the court he had been on the mountain slopes with two Italian friends.

He said he knew every path on the mountain, and had walked ahead of his friends. At one stage he had returned alone to their car, where he had left his cigarettes.

As he sat in the car, he was unable to find his cigarette lighter, but had found some Italian matches, which he had used to light his cigarette.

He said the wind had been much too strong for him to light his cigarette outside the car, and he had done so in the car.

He said Italian matches were different from South African ones, and more difficult to strike.

It had taken him three Italian matches to light his cigarette, and he recalled a spark flying from one of the matches, out of the half-open car window.

He said he had smoked half his cigarette when he smelled the smoke of a veld fire. He said he noticed a “tiny” fire near his car, and he quickly got out of the car to put the fire out.

Cooper told the court: “Instead of putting it out, I seemed to fuel it and it got bigger.”

He said he tried to call the guards in a nearby hut, but there was no response. He then dialled 911 on his cellphone, and gave the authorities answering his call his full names.

As he drove away, the fire spread.

He said evidence that he had smoked outside the car and flicked his cigarette end into the dry grass was “absolute rubbish”.

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