Judge Babalwa Mantame said Saunders’ behaviour was the “most brutal, ruthless and vicious this court has ever seen” and that the little girl died a “harrowing and painful death”.
There was jubilation in the Western Cape High Court as she declared him guilty, with mense bursting into tears, applauding and shouting for joy.
Saunders stared ahead, showing no expression as his fate was sealed.
Courtney’s mother, Juanita Pieters, refused to speak to the media outside court, saying: “Ek willie praat nie” before quickly walking away.
The judge said Juanita was exempt from prosecution for negligence, as she had been open with the court and had “suffered enough”.
Saunders had admitted to poisoning Courtney with ant poison and then smothering her to death, but denied raping her.
Instead, he claimed he violated her corpse by inserting his fingers into her vagina.
However, Judge Mantame rubbished his claims, saying forensic evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt he had raped the child while she was alive.
“If the accused’s explanation could be accepted, then where did the semen in the deep vaginal vault come from? There could be two reasons, this could be penile penetration or contamination,” Mantame said.
However, she said it was highly improbable the semen came from Saunders’ fingers and that the only conclusion that could be drawn was that he had penetrated the toddler with his penis.
“The accused was the last person to see the deceased alive. The only inference to be drawn is that the semen belonged to the accused,” said Mantame.
Saunders was arrested in May last year after the child’s body was found half-buried in Epping Industria, nine days after she was reported missing from her Elsies River home.
Saunders claimed she died after he had fed her poison because she had been disturbing him at the house he shared with her and her family.
Judge Mantame also made it clear that in regard to premeditated murder, Saunders knew the effects of the poison as explained in his own version, even before poisoning Courtney.
“Time is not the only consideration. Only a few minutes is enough and it is clear the quantity administered was high,” she concluded.
“If he wanted to make her sick, there was enough time to get medical attention. From his actions, it is clear that he wanted to silence her.
“The State has proven beyond reasonable doubt it was premeditated murder. She was young and defenceless and she died a slow and painful death.”
The judge said Saunders might have harboured negative feelings toward Juanita, but this was not reason enough to violate and kill Courtney to get back at her mother.
“The crimes committed by the accused were for lewd and selfish reasons. This was a painful, harrowing and agonising experience for the deceased. It shows by her injuries,” Mantame said.
Eric Ntabazalila of the National Prosecuting Authority called for the maximum sentence: “We are pleased with the outcome, and we will ask the court to impose life imprisonment for each charge.
“We appreciate the efforts of advocate Esmeralda Cecil who ensured she did whatever was possible to prove the accused raped the three-year-old child while she was still alive, as well as premeditated murder.
“We want to thank all the experts and the investigating officers. We also want to extend our appreciation to the community of Elsies River who assisted us.”
Community members wore blue T-shirts with Courtney’s face printed on them.
Outside court, one angry aunty said: “To parents: If I see a child in the street walking alone, we’re coming for you. Those parents who lay drunk and don’t care about their children, we are coming for you!”
Saunders is set to be sentenced at the High Court on 4 December.