Pistorius Trial: Week Six, Day Four
It’s the 25th day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, but also the last day that court will be in session for roughly two weeks. As of Friday, court will be in recess until Monday 5th May. Up on the stand first thing today we’ll see the return of forensic geologist Roger Dixon, who was the subject of an extremely tough grilling by prosecutor Gerrie Nel yesterday for giving evidence which may have been outside the boundaries of his formal expertise. By REBECCA DAVIS
09.00 One hopes that witness Roger Dixon is taking home a hefty pay cheque for his service for Oscar Pistorius’s defence team. Dixon consented to having his face broadcast while giving evidence, which means that people all around the world have seen the forensic geologist’s credibility and expertise fiercely challenged by Gerrie Nel. During his testimony he rapidly became the target of social media mockery, and at least one South African newspaper – The Citizen – ran a front-page photograph of Dixon this morning. Given the intensity of the media spotlight on the trial, there’s nowhere to hide. As we’ve said before: who’d be a witness in the Pistorius trial?
When Dixon initially took the stand to be led in evidence by the defence’s Barry Roux, Johannesburg newspaper The Star ran a headline proclaiming: “Oscar trial: Now for damage control” – a reference to the defence team’s opportunity to regain some ground after Pistorius’s shaky testimony.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way so far. Though Dixon initially gave evidence which bolstered the defence’s case in a number of aspects – that Pistorius’s bedroom was indeed pitch black without lights on; that it would have been impossible for neighbours the Stipps to see him through his bathroom window without prosthetics on; that a mark on Pistorius’s prosthetic foot was consistent with attempts to break the toilet door down while wearing prosthetics – Gerrie Nel has comprehensively attacked the expert’s fitness to give evidence on matters outside his speciality of trace evidence.
Nel sent Dixon home yesterday with “homework” relating to retrieving photographs and corroborative literature about his testimony. It remains to be seen whether the production of this will allow Dixon to claw back a bit of ground. Don’t forget, though, that Barry Roux will also get the chance to re-question Dixon after Nel is done with him, to try to re-position him in the court’s eyes as a witness whose testimony is sound.
11.00 It’s been another hairy morning for Roger Dixon, who appeared to take to Facebook before his stint on the stand this morning – assuming the account was genuine – to deplore the criticism of his credibility and integrity. If he hoped today might look a bit different, afraid it’s been more of the same.
But Nel started out in gentler mood, though his performance of frustration has been intensifying as the morning continues. He suggested to Dixon that the recording of the cricket bat bangs made by defence sounded as if it had been amplified, judging by the volume of background noises. Dixon replied that it might have been boosted by sound engineers.
Nel asked how many times Dixon had returned to Pistorius’s Silverwoods estate, with Dixon giving him seven dates between 22nd February 2013 and 14th April this year. Nel inquired if Dixon had a “case file system” where he records the cases he works on as an expert. Dixon responded that this was the first case he had worked on since he left the forensic science lab. “I was approached; I do not advertise,” he said.
Under questioning he again confirmed that he did not test the light available in Pistorius’s room using any technical device; purely his eyes. Dixon justified this by saying that their aim was to see what was visible using only eyes, since that is most relevant to the case. Surely that would be subjective, Nel asked. Dixon conceded that the ability of a person to see under those conditions would be subject to a number of factors, including the state of their eyes, whether they were used to being in the dark, and so on.
Dixon reiterated his version that Bullet A hit Steenkamp’s hip, Bullet B hit her arm, C intercepted the web of her finger and hit the wall, and D hit her head. In his version, the latter three bullets essentially struck her as she was falling from the first shot. But Dixon reminded the court: he is not a wound ballistics expert, he is not a forensic pathologist…this is merely his interpretation of the way things played out.
Nel pointed out that Dixon’s version of Steenkamp falling against the magazine rack – causing her wounds on her back and bruising to the buttock – meant that Dixon and Oscar Pistorius disagreed about where the magazine rack was positioned in the toilet, with Dixon saying it was right next to the toilet. Dixon, using a photo, pointed to a rectangular shape in the blood where he said the magazine rack stood. He was unable to account for the contradictions between his account and Pistorius’s.
It is rather extraordinary that the defence team would put a hired witness on the stand who would contradict their own client’s testimony.
More bad news for Dixon. Previously he used photographs that he had taken at the Silverwoods estate using a model posing on his knees in Pistorius’s bathroom to prove that the Stipps would only have been able to see Pistorius through the window if he was wearing his prosthetics. But Nel pointed out that the man in the picture would have been shorter than Pistorius on his stumps by 20 cm. Why not make sure the person was the same height as Pistorius, Nel asked.
“It is something I omitted,” Dixon said.
Nel also pointed out that Dixon’s observations about what would be visible to the Stipps was based on looking at Pistorius’s bathroom window from the street rather than from the Stipps’ balcony. Dixon replied that a view from below would, if anything, make the model appear taller.
Nel then won from Dixon the concession that with the curtains open and a full moon, there was “quite a lot of light” in Pistorius’s bedroom.
“The state’s case is that the curtains were open,” Nel said. Dixon also conceded that he did not know that on Pistorius’s version, his balcony light was on.
At a certain point Dixon said that he had not wanted his testimony to be affected by any external factors, so he had avoided following the trial – not difficult considering that he says he has no TV, no radio, and reads no newspapers. Court journalists tracked down a Twitter account which appears to be Dixon’s, however, which suggested from a few re-tweets that he had paid some attention to the trial in the first days of the court’s sitting.
13.00 An early close to the day’s proceedings, with Barry Roux arguing that it would be unfair to start questioning a witness and then have to pick it up again on 5th May. Finally, the hapless Roger Dixon is off the stand, but not before another 90 minutes or so being scorched by Nel’s cross-examination.
Nel banged on again about Dixon not having written a proper report about his findings, with Dixon defending himself variously by saying that he preferred not to work from documents, that he was confident about his evidence without having to refer to a report, and that bits of it were on his computer.
Nel wanted to talk about the most convincing part of Dixon’s evidence: the varnish mark which he said was left on Pistorius’s prosthetics after he attempted to kick the toilet door down. Nel grilled Dixon about the chain of custody for the piece of door and piece of prosthesis that he used to make his findings. After the pounding the police took for not looking after the door properly while awaiting trial, Nel may have thought it was time to get one back. Dixon didn’t have the custody chain details to hand, but said they were beyond reproach.
Dixon seemed to pick up confidence again when answering questions about the varnish marks. He dismissed the idea that one might have expected to find varnish over the whole prosthesis area, though admitted that he hadn’t checked the sock for varnish.
One of the strangest moments of the trial then came when Nel handed Dixon one of the prosthetic legs that Pistorius was wearing on the night of the shooting to handle. Pistorius seemed to watch intently, but was there an element of humiliation in the proceedings for him? The athlete previously testified that when he took off his prosthetic legs he preferred them to be out of sight. Here they were being waved around by a forensic geologist on international television.
Nel pointed out that the piece of prosthesis which had been cut off for Dixon to analyse was smaller than the mark on the door which the defence claims was caused by Pistorius kicking. Under questioning, Dixon conceded that he had not considered that varnish marks on the prosthesis might have been from another door, although said reasonably that he was not aware that other doors were under suspicion of being kicked. He dismissed Nel’s proposal that the mark could have been caused by Pistorius stumbling on the panel.
Dixon admitted that when considering the angle at which shots were fired at the toilet door, no specific tools like angle meters were used. (Captain Mangena, said Nel, used all sorts of clever gadgets.) Nel returned to the issue of the “witness board”, which is used to show splinters blown through the door (of relevance in determining Steenkamp’s distance from the door). Yesterday Nel accused Dixon of not providing photographs of the entire door.
Dixon replied, with a trace of smugness, that the photographs of the witness boards would be made available and that the witness boards themselves would be brought to court when the defence’s ballistics expert testified. Nel pounced, wanting to know how Dixon knew this. (His implication was that between yesterday and today the defence team had spoken to Dixon: a no-no while the witness is still on the stand.) Dixon prevaricated a little in response but eventually replied that he had personally loaded the photos from his computer to give to the defence to make available. It was his assumption only that the ballistics expert would bring in the witness boards. Nel released his prey.
As with Pistorius, Roux kept his witness on the stand for a surprisingly short time for re-examination. He elicited the fact from Dixon that when the defence was carrying out sound tests at a shooting range, the “range master” mistook the cricket bat bangs for gunshots.
Roux returned to the issue of whether it would have been possible for Johan Stipp to see Pistorius on his stumps through the bathroom window. (Dixon previously said it was not, using photos of a model on his knees to illustrate the point, but Nel then pointed out that the model was some 20cm shorter than Pistorius would be.) Roux reminded the court that Stipp had testified that he could see the top half of the window; 20cm or no 20cm, Dixon confirmed that it would be impossible for Pistorius to reach the top half of the window.
And Roger Dixon, probably with a large gulp of relief, was set free from the stand.
So that’s it, folks, for the next two weeks. Time for South Africa to readjust to what life was like before the trial’s onset. Perhaps that trifling matter of our impending general elections can assert itself in the vacuum. DM
Photo: South African Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius is seen during his trial at the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, 16 April 2014. EPA/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / POOL