Pistorius Trial: Week Seven, Day Two
The Oscar Pistorius murder trial is back, just when we had all managed to re-focus on matters like deciding who to vote for (and not Gerrie Nel or Barry Roux). Today is the 27th day of the trial in a week which will be broken up by South Africa's general elections on Wednesday. REBECCA DAVIS is keeping an eye on matters, and trying to remember who's who.
09.00 Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's back to the Pistorius trial we go. Yesterday matters kicked off again while I was pleasantly otherwise engaged, but the Daily Maverick's Greg Nicolson was on hand to fill you in. The defence called estate neighbour Johan Stander to the stand, who was the first person on the crime scene after being phoned by Pistorius, and who arrived with his daughter Clarice Viljoen. Viljoen was the defence's second witness of the day. Both testified to Pistorius's shock and distress after the shooting, and his commitment to rescuscitating Steenkamp, while the state's Gerrie Nel attempted to cast doubt on the objectivity of testimony given that Stander was a friend of Pistorius's.
Today we're expecting to see new witnesses up for the defence who may include close neighbours of Pistorius.
It's been reported, meanwhile, that the ANC Women's League is bearing the costs of Reeva Steenkamp's mother June's travel and accommodation for the duration of the trial, with spokeswoman Jacqui Mofokeng telling Beeld that they were doing so in order for Steenkamp to "get some closure". No doubt this will occasion some murmuring about other victims' families who haven't been the beneficiary of ANC Women's League funding.
11.00 Speculation was correct: on the witness stand today were two of Pistorius’s immediate neighbours, Michael and Eontle Nhlengethwa, who live to the right of Pistorius’s house if you’re facing it. These two were initially on the state’s list of witnesses, but weren’t called. The reason for this became clear: their version presents anomalies with the testimony of the Stipps and Burgers which would be difficult for the state to package up neatly.
The Nhlengethwas were home on the night of Steenkamp’s shooting, and they live closer to Pistorius’s house than anyone we’ve previously heard from. Intriguingly, there appears to be someone who was even closer, however: Pistorius’s mysterious live-in housekeeper. The Telegraph reports that Frank Chiziweni, a Malawian employee who slept in domestic quarters on the ground floor of Pistorius’s property, will not be called to give evidence because he claims to have heard “absolutely nothing”.
The Telegraph reported police being skeptical about the possibility of this, given that neighbours almost 200m away claimed to have heard shots and screams. But defence and prosecution have confirmed that Mr Chiziweni will not be called as a witness.
It seems we’ll have to make do with the neighbours. Michael Nhlengethwa was first up, and painted a picture of a neighbour (Pistorius) who was friendly and welcoming, though they did not socialize. He claimed that Pistorius introduced Reeva Steenkamp to him as his fiancée – quite a curious point, though one not taken up either by defence or the state. Steenkamp hugged Nhlengethwa on first meeting, he said, which he took as evidence of her warm character. “This one is for keeps,” he told Pistorius.
On the night in question, Nhlengethwa was woken by his wife, who said she had heard a bang. He said his first concern was to check on the safety of his daughter, and to make sure that all room doors were locked, as was customary. He then heard a man crying “very loud”. Nhlengethwa said it was a different noise to that of someone crying because they’re sad: he interpreted it as the cry of someone in danger who needed help. It was, he said, a very high-pitched voice.
Nhlengethwa phoned estate security and eventually got through, after initially receiving an engaged signal. He subsequently saw a security vehicle pull into the Stipps’ driveway and thought that was where the issue was, but then saw it drive on to Pistorius’s house. Nhlengethwa went to Pistorius’s house himself and witnessed the athlete kneeling next to Steenkamp in evident shock and distress.
The following day, Nhlengethwa was approached by a police officer who asked him very colloquially in Zulu what had happened. Nhlengethwa said that he objected to this disrespectful approach.
Under cross-examination from the state’s Gerrie Nel, Nhlengethwa admitted that he had been following the case, and so knew what the other neighbours testified as to what they’d heard on the night. He described the recollections of the Stipps in particular as “surprising”, but said maybe discrepancies could be attributed to the fact that he and his wife were still sleeping when the Stipps were hearing shots and bangs. He confirmed that he had heard neither shots, nor sounds which could be those of a cricket bat striking a door.
Roux led him once again in questioning, under which he said again that he had heard a man crying very loudly. If a woman had been screaming at the same time, he said he would have heard it, but he did not.
Following Michael Nhlengethwa to the stand today was his wife Eontle, a self-described housewife who knew Pistorius “as a neighbor” but said she had never met Reeva Steenkamp.
On the night in question, Eontle said that she had heard a bang – a “very loud sound” – which woke her up. She then heard someone saying “help, help help”, and the sound of a man’s voice crying. Prompted by Roux, she produced a fairly dramatic impersonation of the wail she had heard.
Like her husband, Eontle freely admitted having followed the trial – in fact, she said she had been watching it on TV virtually continuously. (Nel is eliciting this admission from the witnesses, though he hasn’t been dwelling on it, to draw the court’s attention to the fact that their testimony may have been altered by it. In fairness, however, the Nhlengethwas have clearly not attempted to adjust their testimony to make it fit better with that given by other neighbor witnesses.)
Eontle said under cross-examination that she had heard no further bang after before the one she heard, which was followed by calls for help and a man crying. Like her husband, she confirmed that she had not heard a woman scream.
Nel said that if she had heard a bang followed by Pistorius’s cries for help, it meant that the bang she heard could only have been his final blow upon the toilet door with a cricket bat. Roux objected to this, saying the timing of calls made by her husband to security did not necessarily fit this.
13.00 An early finish to the Pistorius trial today due to the availability (or lack thereof) of defence witnesses. But there is hope for everyone weary of this spectacle: defence lawyer Barry Roux indicated today that he would be finished with his witnesses by next Tuesday 13th. Roux said initially he would be calling somewhere between 14 and 17 witnesses; we’ve already disposed of 7, so even with today’s public holiday, the Tuesday target might be possible.
The post-tea session consisted of the questioning of another neighbour witness, Ricca Motshwane, who lives across the road from Pistorius. Motshwane again presented Pistorius as a friendly and welcoming neighbour, who had come to greet them when they moved to the estate in 2008.
On the evening of 13th February 2013, Motshwane said she and her husband went to bed at around 10pm. In the early hours of 14th February, she was woken by the sounds of a man crying – a “cry of pain”. Motshwane woke her husband up. (It is perhaps worth noting that every witness in the Pistorius trial thus far has said that their first instinct, on hearing a strange noise, was to confer with their partner. Every witness except Oscar Pistorius himself.)
Motshwane thought she might be dreaming, but her husband confirmed what she heard. She said she thought that perhaps a security guard had been shot. She, too, was prompted by Roux to give an impression of the cries she had heard: a high-pitched wail. Not more than ten minutes elapsed, she said, between hearing crying and seeing Johan Stander’s Mini Cooper pull up outside Pistorius’s house.
Like the Nhlengethwas, Motshwane was adamant that she had only heard a man crying, and not a woman. Under cross-examination from Gerrie Nel, Motshwane too confirmed that she had not heard any gunshots. She estimated that the time when she woke up was perhaps 3.20am.
Motshwane also admitted having followed the trial’s proceedings on TV.
And that’s where we left it for the day, with Roux explaining that his next witness would only be available on Thursday morning. These neighbour witnesses are being dealt with very quickly, perhaps because they’re not saying anything too controversial. It is, obviously, perplexing that these latest witnesses slept through the sound of bangs (except one) but were woken by crying. The defence is likely to make much of the fact that they did not hear Steenkamp screaming, given their proximity to Pistorius’s house. The state will likely argue that they would not have heard her screaming, since by the time they woke up the bangs were finished and Steenkamp was already dead.
The witnesses’ other likely value to the defence seems to be in once again presenting Pistorius as a respectful, decent young man, although this is more of a footnote.
One intriguing aspect of today’s proceedings played out outside formal court business. Pistorius, it is alleged, muttered to Reeva Steenkamp’s friend Kim Myers: “How do you sleep at night?” during a break. It is totally unclear why he would have chosen Kim Myers as the target for this. Her sister Gina was Steenkamp’s best friend; neither have been called as witnesses, though together with their mother Desi they have been a visible courtroom presence in support of the Steenkamp family.
Pistorius immediately denied saying this, although he was reportedly witnessed both by police and at least one journalist saying something to Kim Myers. Sister Gina told the Daily Maverick that Pistorius did indeed say the words to Kim Myers. Mother Desi Myers told City Press she was furious, and the Myers’ lawyer later said that they were taking the attempted intimidation up with the National Prosecuting Authority.
If true, aside from any sinister aspect, it’s an unbelievably stupid stunt for Pistorius to have pulled, especially knowing that he is under such scrutiny from journalists in the courtroom.
Wednesday, of course, won’t see court happening due to the elections. Questioned by British journalist Aislinn Laing, Pistorius apparently confirmed that he would be voting – but wouldn’t be drawn on the matter of for whom. (It’s perhaps unlikely that his father Henke will be voting ANC, however, after telling the Telegraph last year that the ANC was to blame for the violent crime culture in South Africa). Wherever Oscar Pistorius goes to vote – presumably somewhere in Pretoria – it’s to be imagined that he will try to do so as discreetly as possible. For once, he can count on national attention being elsewhere. DM
Photo by Reuters.