AT last, eight years later, the courts are finally done with the three cops who shot and killed a farmer in the Eastern Cape.

Their appeal against conviction and sentence was rejected last week, and two of them – the third, Mlungisi Papu has since died – will now serve time in jail. Papu was sentenced to five years and Fezekile Maseti and Zukile Zinto to four years for murder, but they also broke the law in other ways, trying to hide their role in the farmer’s death.

It’s a story that reads like the script for a Sam Pekinpah movie, starting with violence and shooting, then moving from literal darkness into ever deeper moral shadow.

Factually the tale begins with an armed and violent suspect who shot at a police vehicle on 13 May 2006. Alarmed, the police planned a night time raid on an isolated farmhouse in the Seymour district, apparently because of reports that the suspect could be hiding out there.

Next night a posse of police, heavily armed with 9mm pistols as well as high calibre rifles, made their way in silence to the farm. As they closed in on the farmhouse the dogs began barking and the occupants of the house, including the farmer, Shadrack Nkuzo, came out to see what was happening.

He called to whoever was hiding in the shadows to identify themselves but the police did not answer. Under these circumstances Nkuzo seems to have fired a warning shot. Immediately the police fired back, even though they were hiding behind a trailer and were in little personal danger.

Nkuzo died from a high velocity gunshot wound to the head. When they discovered his body – and that he was not the suspect they wanted but an ordinary farmer trying to protect himself and his family – the police began to concoct defences for themselves.

Photographs of the scene show Nkuzo’s body with a gun in his hand. However, the trial court as well as the court hearing the appeal found the gun was planted in his hand by the police specially for the photographs. This was to shore up their version of the story: that they came under fire and shot back, believing they were shooting at the armed suspect.

The courts commented that this act of deception raised questions about their honesty on other issues too.

They also tried another strategy to hide their actions and informed a doctor at the mortuary that Nkuzo had been killed in a car accident. The doctor on duty duly signed a certificate to that effect. The truth was later discovered and investigators of what was at the time called the Independent Complaints Directorate arranged for the body to be exhumed for a second, proper, post mortem.

On trial, the police claimed they shot in self-defence, citing ‘private defence’ and ‘putative private defence’ – concepts now well known to followers of the Oscar Pistorius trial – but the courts rejected these claims.

In a final but ultimately unsuccessful bid to avoid responsibility the three raised yet another defence during argument of their appeal: we were merely following orders, they said.

The trial court found the evidence of Nkuzo’s family honest and reliable. They had painted a picture of ‘deep darkness’ around the house when they came out in response to the dogs’ barking, and when they called to the intruders this was met with silence.

By contrast the police evidence was ‘disturbing’ and ‘unsatisfactory’. The entire operation was misconceived from the start: none of the police, said the courts, could have entertained a reasonable suspicion that their ‘quarry’ was on the farm. One of the accused, for example, knew Nkuzo and his family well and once he arrived on the farm would have known there had been a mistake.

There were more police involved in the operation than the three charged with Nkuzo’s death, and the judges said that it was unreasonable and ‘foolhardy in the extreme’ for them all to have gone, ‘under cover of darkness’ to a remote farm, armed with ‘a battery of artillery’ with no proper plan.

Papu, the now-deceased first accused and ‘commander’ of the expedition, showed a ‘level of ineptitude of epic proportions’, said the appeal court.

Unhappily it’s not just incompetence: as the independent investigating officials commented at the time, this case shows just how difficult it sometimes can be to unearth the truth when you are faced with police determined to cover up their illegal actions.

Papu and others v S