Where ignorance fears to tread.
24 October 2014 20:02 (South Africa)
South Africa

Pistorius Trial. Week five - day two

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa
706x410q70Rebecca-states-case-vs-Oscar.jpg

It's the 18th day of the Pistorius murder trial, and the second on which we expect the athlete to testify. After some emotional testimony on Monday, Pistorius seemed to settle down a little by the afternoon's end. But we still haven't even broached the subject of the events of 14th February 2013. We're probably in for a teary day ahead. By REBECCA DAVIS

09.00 It's packed benches again in courtroom GD this morning, though a fair amount of the media gaze is currently focused on the Western Cape High Court, where murder-accused Shrien Dewani is expected to arrive in just under an hour. The Daily Maverick's Marianne Thamm is hustling there to bring you the best coverage.

Here in Pretoria, the man of the moment has not yet arrived. Today we're expecting the continuation of testimony from the trial's key witness, Pistorius himself. Yesterday we heard a bit of a potted CV of Pistorius's childhood, athletic development and so on, with Barry Roux giving Pistorius ample opportunity to reframe himself in the court's eyes as an upstanding, if anxious, young man. When we left off, Pistorius was discussing his devout religious faith.

Together with the usual Steenkamp and Pistorius supporters, Oscar's old foe Mark Batchelor is in court today, presumably unable to resist the opportunity to see the athlete take the stand. Let's see whether we get round to cross-examination today.

11.15. Gentle readers, what is there to relate about the last hour and three-quarters? They have been devoted, in the main, to a painstaking journey through the Steenkamp-Pistorius WhatsApp anthology. Roux is instructing Pistorius to read the messages between the lovers almost day by day, clearly to build up the picture of a loving, supportive relationship in which an act of intentional violence would be unthinkable.

The two met, Pistorius said, at a lunch with mutual friends. They hit it off immediately. That same evening, lacking a date to the SA Sports Awards, he called Steenkamp and asked her to accompany him. She agreed, and the two had a great time. From then on, they began to see each other with increasing frequency.

Pistorius said that his impression was that he was more attached to Steenkamp than vice versa, but he "let her take her space". From January 2013, the relationship grew more serious, and they began discussing a future together, and the decoration of a home Pistorius was planning to buy in Johannesburg.

Roux began the WhatsApp onslaught by taking Pistorius through the messages that the state had selected to show evidence of a fraught relationship. Pistorius gave his explanation of the major arguments that the WhatsApps described: he had been on a strict diet and there was no suitable food at a party; Reeva had failed to introduce him to a male friend; Reeva had not followed his request not to stop and talk to anyone at an event, or he would have to take photos. Arguments were resolved speedily, usually over the phone: it was Reeva who preferred expressing herself lengthily over WhatsApp.

The messages Pistorius read out that the two exchanged daily spoke in the main of a loving, mutually supportive relationship, despite a number of external stresses. Pistorius was under a lot of pressure: from media, from training, from finances. Steenkamp received hate mail from crazy Pistorius fans for dating him. Tabloids claimed that Pistorius was cheating on ex Sam Taylor (as did Taylor in her time on the stand). Pistorius denied this, saying that Taylor had "confessed" to sleeping with another man while he was at the London Olympics. He did not mention the Russian supermodel that he was photographed on a date with at the same time.

As we broke for tea, we were inching closer to messages exchanged up to the fateful night of14th February. It's pretty slow progress - laced with 'babas' and 'booboos' aplenty.

13.00 Lunch at the North Gauteng High Court, after one of the most important and dramatic sessions to date. We're into the serious stuff now.

Pistorius flatly denies the incident driving back from the Vaal River, testified to by both Darren Fresco and Sam Taylor, where he discharged a firearm through the sunroof of Fresco's car. Pistorius says simply that it didn't happen. This presumably means that Fresco and Taylor must have colluded on false testimony.

As for the Tasha's incident: Pistorius did not explicitly state whether or not Darren Fresco warned him that his gun was loaded when he passed it to Pistorius - as both Fresco and Lerena testified. But he said he was "quite angry" that Fresco had passed him an unsafe gun. Pistorius denied asking Fresco to take the blame, as both Fresco and Lerena testified. In Pistorius's version, Fresco volunteered to take the blame, and Pistorius subsequently told restaurant owner Jason Loupis, "It's my fault", and offered to pay for the damage.

So we have some glaring contradictions between Pistorius's testimony, and that of the other witnesses present at both events. Presumably Gerrie Nel will want to take this up: don't forget both incidents carry individual criminal charges.

On the evening of 13 February, Pistorius has indicated that things were normal and relaxed between him and Reeva. He had been considering dinner with the boys in Johannesburg that evening; she had been invited to a movie by friend Samantha Greyvenstein. But ultimately he felt too tired to stay for dinner with his male friends, and Reeva offered to cook dinner for them both.

When Pistorius arrived home at around six, Reeva - who had stayed at his house the night before - was busy preparing dinner. There was a wrapped present and a card with his name on it - he made as if to open it, but Reeva warned him that he should wait until Valentine's Day the following day. Pistorius had not prepared a present for Reeva, but the two had agreed to visit her favourite jewellery store together the next day to pick something out.

In the end, Pistorius testified through tears, he saved Reeva's Valentine's present - a photo of them both - to open in memory of Reeva on her birthday, August 8th, last year. Just one problem: as I confirmed with Reeva's cousin Kim Martin, Reeva's birthday is on August 19th.

After Pistorius returned home, he briefly surfed the internet using his iPad, had a bath, and returned downstairs to where Reeva was cooking. The two ate dinner together at the dining room tale, chatted about their days, and watched a bit of TV. Then they decided to retire to bed.

It was a humid evening, so Pistorius opened the bedroom doors. He positioned two fans on the balcony to blow cool air in, as his air conditioning wasn't working. He drew the curtains, which were specially chosen to provide pitch darkness because sometimes Pistorius sleeps during the day. He closed and locked his bedroom door, as he does every night, and he further propped up his cricket bat against the door for greater security because the lock was weak.

Asked by Roux, Pistorius confirmed that his house did have an alarm system, with beams both inside and outside. However, because they were in the process of re-painting his house, the outside sensors were experiencing some trouble.

That night Pistorius slept on the left side of the bed, unlike normal, because he couldn't sleep on his right shoulder due to injury. As always, his gun was tucked under his bed. The two went to sleep between 9 and 10pm.

At this point, after a short adjournment, Pistorius returned to the courtroom wearing a white shirt and shorts, with his prosthetic legs visible. Under instruction from Barry Roux, he removed his legs and stood on his stumps in front of the toilet door, with the court asked to make a note of his height relative to the door. He then returned to the witness stand.

Pistorius testified that he woke up in the early hours of 14 February. A detail not included in his bail affidavit, but given now, was that Reeva woke - or was awake - too. Indeed, the two had a brief conversation, discussing Pistorius's inability to sleep.

Pistorius got up and moved the fans, still running, into the bedroom. He closed and locked the sliding doors, and drew the curtains. A pair of jeans were on the floor: he picked them up and placed them over a flashing amplifier light. It was then that he heard what he thought was the sound of a window closing in the bathroom.

"That's the moment that everything changed," Pistorius told the court.

He testified that he immediately thought there was a burglar in the bathroom, and his first thought was that he needed to arm himself to defend himself and Reeva. Running with his hands out in front of him - because it was so dark - he made his way alongside the bed, grabbed his gun and removed it from its holster. At that point he says he "whispered" for Reeva to get down and phone the police.

"Overcome" with fear, Pistorius began screaming and shouting for the burglar to get out of his home and for Reeva to phone the police as he made his way down the passage to the toilet. Just before the toilet door he stopped shouting, scared of giving away his position to the intruder. He then heard the toilet door slam, which confirmed to him that there was somebody there.

The toilet door slamming detail is another that was not included in the original bail affidavit. When court resumes, we expect to hear more of the nitty-gritty of the actual shooting.

14h30. A very emotionally draining post-lunch session at the Pistorius trial, from which it's hard to imagine anyone walking away with a spring in their step.

When we picked up again, Pistorius was describing entering the bathroom quietly, having stopped shouting and screaming out of fear that intruders might come at him out of the toilet. (It's noteworthy that Pistorius referred repeatedly to intruders, plural, as being his potential threat.)

Keeping his shoulder to the wall, Pistorius edged forward, peering around the corner into the bathroom. There were no lights on, but he could see that the window was open. He established that there was nobody in the bathroom, but the toilet door was closed. He retreated a little, not knowing if somebody might come at him out of the toilet, or up the ladder he thought to be leaning against the bathroom window.

When he thought he heard someone coming out of the toilet - Pistorius was speaking very fast at this stage - he fired four shots through the door. Not hearing anything, he shouted to Reeva to call the police. Pistorius testified that he did not know how long he stood there shouting for Reeva.

"At some point", he decided to walk back to his bedroom, because he couldn't hear much with his ears still ringing from the shots, and he didn't have his phone on him. He kept on shouting for Reeva while moving towards the bedroom because even at that point, he claims, he thought intruders might pose a threat.

Reaching his bed, Pistorius hoisted himself on to it backwards while talking to Reeva, but not receiving any response, he reached behind him to feel for her. Nobody was there, but his first thought was that perhaps she had dropped to the floor because she was scared. He kept his firearm trained on the dim light coming from the passage.

When he realised that Steenkamp was not on the floor next to the bed, the thought struck him for the first time that it could be her inside the toilet. He did not want to believe it, and ran his hand behind the bedroom curtains to check if perhaps she was hiding there. "I didn't want to believe it could be Reeva inside the toilet," he said. "I still thought it could be someone coming in to take me, or us."

Returning to the toilet, he tried the handle and realised it was locked. Pistorius screamed for someone to help him. He rushed back, put on his prosthetic legs, ran back to the bathroom, tried to kick open the door, failed, and, panicking, ran back to the bedroom. He was, he said, screaming and shouting the whole time. "I don't think I've ever screamed or cried like that," he told the court.

Grabbing the cricket bat, he ran back to the bathroom. Asked by Roux, he confirmed that the light was on by this time, though he couldn't say when he had switched it on. Pistorius began hitting the door with the bat. The first time it hit the door frame. He swung again and a small piece came off. After three blows, he was able to grab out a big plank and fling it behind him into the bathroom. Spying the key lying on the floor, he scooped it up and unlocked the door. He flung it open.

"Then I sat over Reeva and cried," Pistorius said.

"I don't know how long I was there for. She wasn't breathing." With that, Pistorius broke down into harrowing sobs, and court was adjourned. Proceedings resumed after a short break, but Roux said he felt it would be irresponsible to continue for the day given Pistorius's emotional state. Prosecutors and judge alike agreed to leave matters till Wednesday morning.

There seems little doubt that Pistorius is genuinely in pain. His heaving wails seem to come from a very deep place, and were very difficult and wrenching to witness. But equally, this has absolutely no bearing on the question of whether he is innocent or guilty of murder - though such expressions of remorse could work in his favour in mitigation of sentence if he is found guilty of the lesser charge of culpable homicide.

One person who betrayed little emotion as she watched Pistorius's display was Reeva Steenkamp's mother June, whose face gave little away. If she found her daughter's killer's sobs moving, she didn't appear to show it.

At the risk of seeming callous, journalists were also wondering how long Pistorius's duration on the stand could last, if the court adjourns at each display of violent emotion. Cross-examination from the state's Gerrie Nel will be a damn sight harder than anything Pistorius has experienced thus far on the stand.

Tomorrow morning, when we pick up, we'll be returned to the scene of Pistorius weeping over Steenkamp's body. It's grim, gruesome, gruelling stuff. DM

Photo: Barry Roux (L) sits with his client, Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius, at the end of the trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, March 17, 2014. Pistorius is on trial for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his suburban Pretoria home on Valentine's Day last year. He says he mistook her for an intruder. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.

  • Rebecca Davis
  • South Africa


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