A 23-year-old South African man has been given three life sentences for the murders of his parents and brother in an exclusive housing estate.

Henri van Breda, 23, was also given a 15-year sentence for the attempted murder of his sister and an additional 12 months for obstruction of justice.

The former student of Perth's exclusive Scotch College in Australia appeared emotionless as the judge sentenced him for the horrific killings at his family's luxury home in Stellenbosch, a scenic town in a wine-growing area in South Africa's Western Cape.

Henri, far left, with his parents and siblings. He murdered his mother, father and brother with an axe and left his sister with near fatal injuries.
Henri, far left, with his parents and siblings. He murdered his mother, father and brother with an axe and left his sister with near fatal injuries.

The grisly attack, which gripped a country that has a high rate of violent crime, also has attracted international attention. The family had moved to Australia but returned several years ago.

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Lawyers for van Breda indicated they will appeal the sentence.

Judge Siraj Desai described 23-year-old Henri van Breda's January 2015 rampage as "savage and vicious" with "an almost unprecedented degree of disregard for one's family".

"Each murderous attack on a family member is a severe crime and warrants the severest punishment," he told the packed Western Cape High Court in Cape Town. "They were attacks involving a high degree of uncontrolled violence. The victims were unarmed [and] they faced an axe-wielding son or brother, probably not expecting the worst.

Henri van Breda at court for his sentencing at the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town, South Africa yesterday. Photo / Getty
Henri van Breda at court for his sentencing at the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town, South Africa yesterday. Photo / Getty

"These attacks display a high level of innate cruelty," Desai said. "The violence was excessive and gratuitous. It was intended to cause maximum harm."

"We have heard no explanation. You have shown no remorse," he said. "I'm searching for some human factor that to some degree diminishes the sheer seriousness of these crimes.

"There must be something. I'm appealing to [you]: put before me some reason for these attacks," he said.

The memorial service of the murdered van Breda family on February 5, 2015 at the NG Kerk in Pretoria, South Africa. Martin van Breda, his wife Teresa and their son Rudi were killed. Photo / Getty
The memorial service of the murdered van Breda family on February 5, 2015 at the NG Kerk in Pretoria, South Africa. Martin van Breda, his wife Teresa and their son Rudi were killed. Photo / Getty

Van Breda was led away by court officers as his girlfriend watched on from the public gallery.

Van Breda had denied murdering his 21-year-old brother Rudi and parents Martin, 54, and Teresa, 55, and leaving his sister Marli with near-fatal injuries to her head, neck and throat after the bloody attack.

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The trial generated global interest in how a privileged son unleashed such a brutal attack on his family, whose fortune - estimated at $16 million - was derived from property.

During the trial, van Breda had told the court a late-night intruder had entered the family's luxury residence on the highly guarded De Zalze Golf Estate.

His claim had echoes of the defence used by Oscar Pistorius, who said he thought a burglar was hiding in an en suite to explain why he fired four times through the door, killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

But Judge Desai systematically took apart the defence case in a five-hour summary of the trial - and then read a verdict that he said "as a family man, it's difficult" to deliver.

Henri van Breda with his girlfriend Danielle Janse van Rensburg in May. She has stood by him throughout the court proceedings. Photo / Getty
Henri van Breda with his girlfriend Danielle Janse van Rensburg in May. She has stood by him throughout the court proceedings. Photo / Getty

Defence lawyer Pieter Botha, who plans to appeal the conviction and sentencing, had called for a "merciful" sentencing, arguing that van Breda was a first-time offender who was "barely 20" when he killed his family.

He said van Breda had been in counselling for six months, was "appropriately emotional" when the murders were mentioned, and was taking medication for depression and epilepsy.

Since his conviction van Breda has been held in the medical wing of South Africa's notoriously violent Pollsmoor prison.

Before returning to Cape Town, the South African family lived on Queensland's Sunshine Coast where Martin van Breda ran a real estate firm. They lived in the suburb of Buderim at the time. Before this, the family lived in Perth, where Henri and his brother Rudi attended Scotch College.

South Africa's government welcomed the sentencing, saying it "serves as a deterrent to others who think that violence in the family will be allowed in South Africa".

- with AP