Oscar Pistorius murder trial: Day 1

By Rebecca Davis 3 March 2014

On Monday, 3rd March, sportsman Oscar Pistorius will appear in the North Gauteng High Court charged with the murder of aspirant lawyer and model Reeva Steenkamp. REBECCA DAVIS is there to record events as they happen.

06.30 It’s an unseasonably wet and chilly morning in Pretoria. Oscar Pistorius isn’t expected at the North Gauteng High Court till around 10am, but there will already be a throng of journalists – the “hack-pack”, as Helen Zille would say – jostling for position around the courthouse entrance. We’ll be heading there shortly to start arm-wrestling for a seat.

09.30 Bedraggled journalists are now seated in the courtroom. There was none of the unseemly scrumming for seats that we witnessed at the chaotic bail hearing, though journalists in the overflow room are about to be let in to fill some spaces. Pistorius’s sister Aimee and brother Carl have taken up seats near the front. In the same row, less than a metre from them, Reeva Steenkamp’s mother June sits. She never met Oscar Pistorius during the brief period in which he dated her daughter. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday published last weekend, she spoke of her desire to sit front and centre in the courtroom during the first day’s proceedings so that Pistorius would be forced to look her in the eye. She’s well placed for it.

Photo: Oscar family members arrive. (Greg Nicolson)

11:25 Pistorius entered the courtroom inobtrusively just before 10am, having given photographers outside the courtroom the slip by sneaking in a side entrance. He appears far more composed than at his bail hearing, and has been intermittently having animated conversations with his legal team, headed by Barry Roux. Pistorius has also brought a pen and a notebook to trial. Perhaps he aims to write his own version of the estimated 8 books on the trial set for publication when Judge Thokozile Masipa’s gavel falls.

The Justice Department has addressed the courtroom twice: once sternly to remind journalists of the photography regulations and the second time to apologise for delays, which involve problems with an Afrikaans interpreter. (Why are there always problems with interpreters the minute the world’s eyes are firmly fixed on South Africa?) In the interim, we’ve had a sideshow involving a woman called “Annemarie”, who launches spurious applications at each Pistorius-related legal hearing. Annemarie claims her surname was stolen from her, as famously also happened to Madonna and Ronaldo, to name but two. Her concern seems to be that Pistorius’s mental health hasn’t been adequately evaluated. Ironically, the rest of us think *her* mental health hasn’t been adequately evaluated.

We’re scheduled to kick off for real at 11.30. Let’s see.

Photo: Oscar Pistorius with his uncle Arnold in the foyer of lawyers’ chambers next to the Pretoria High Court. (Greg Nicolson)

1.05pm. We’re at lunch now, 90 minutes after Judge Thokozile Masipa entered the courtroom, and it’s been a pretty action-packed 90 minutes. A sober-faced Pistorius expressed his understanding of the charges he faces: one count of murder, and three counts to do with recklessly discharging his firearm in public. In each case his plea was the same: “Not guilty, my Lady.”

Pistorius’s defence came out swinging, seeking not just to proclaim Pistorius’s innocence but also to discredit what they predict will be the state’s case. Attorney Kenny Oldwage reiterated the claims made during Pistorius’s bail hearing that the athlete had heard noises in the bathroom and mistaken them for an intruder. Oldwage mentioned, as expected, Pistorius’s vulnerability on his stumps. Slightly less expected was the vehemence with which Oldwage attacked the state’s case, with allegations of evidence-tampering, crime scene contamination, and a concerted attempt to attack the character of Oscar Pistorius.

Key to this trial is one question: were Pistorius and Steenkamp fighting on the night of the murder? The defence rejects this, saying they were a couple in love. For the prosecution, Gerrie Nel’s very first witness gave an account of having heard a women’s screams and yells for help, a man’s yells for help, and four gunshots, from the vantage point of her property on a neighbouring estate. The witness, a lecturer called Michelle Burger, gave convincing and credible testimony, even if it was somewhat compromised by shoddy translation. (Why, South Africa, why?)

During cross-examination we’ll hear how the defence attempts to take down Burger. They will likely play on the distance between Burger’s property and Pistorius’s – 177 metres – and claim it was impossible for Burger to have heard what she believed. Burger, incidentally, has refused to have her face shown for broadcast (as she is entitled). Will others follow suit?

Photo: Oscar Pistorius leans forward as his lawyer, Barry Roux (R) speaks to him before court proceedings. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

 

16.50 The after-lunch session saw Pistorius’s big gun – Barry Roux – take on the state’s first witness, Michelle Burger. Roux on the attack is a daunting prospect, as we saw in Pistorius’s bail hearing, when Roux systematically destroyed police investigator Hilton Botha. “Are you standing there and saying that Oscar Pistorius lies?” was the gambit he began his cross-examination with. Roux attempted to draw out inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Burger’s testimony: like a discrepancy between the number of screams heard by Burger and her husband; and an apparent escalation of the horror since Burger gave her initial testimony to police investigators.

Roux clearly aimed to show that Burger’s memory of events on the night of the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp had been shaped by subsequent media reports, which she admitted to having followed closely. Roux suggested that what Burger considered to be gunshots were actually the sound of Pistorius bashing down this bathroom door. That Burger purported to have heard a man yelling and a woman yelling was impossible, Roux said. Rather, he would produce at least one witness later to testify to the fact that when Pistorius is anxious, he screams like a woman.

But Burger revealed herself to be one tough cookie – presumably why the state put her in the firing line first. When asked by Roux what she would like to be referred to – Mrs or Miss – she coolly suggested ‘Doctor’ initially (she has a PhD) before they settled on Ma’am. She did not allow herself to be diverted from her testimony and neither did she budge from her story, addressing the judge with vehemence and gesturing to punctuate her points. Roux isn’t done with Burger yet; tomorrow morning we’re back in court to see Round 2 at 09h30.

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