South Africa

Pistorius trail: day 1 – a scene-setter with familiar notes

By Rebecca Davis 4 March 2014

The first day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial introduced many of the elements we can expect to see throughout the case. A delay, some incompetence; a defence strategy which will see Pistorius’s crack lawyers do everything in their power to discredit witnesses; and an early verbalising of the fear that is claimed to stalk suburban South African streets. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Monday in Pretoria dawned gloomy and wet, with the iconic Union Buildings shrouded in fog. On the same day, on the other side of the world, British luminaries paid tribute to the life and death of Nelson Mandela in a memorial ceremony held at Westminster Abbey. But the world’s attention was elsewhere; on another son of South Africa who once posed proudly for a photo with Mandela, his neck wreathed with sporting medals, but who today stands trial for murder.

Behind the Palace of Justice where Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Trial lies the North Gauteng High Court, where Pistorius faces his own life term if convicted of murder. Many hours before Pistorius’s scheduled arrival on Monday morning, the street filled with journalists. Above, a small drone carrying a camera buzzed overhead, capturing images. The rain started to fall more insistently. “It’s a message from God about how far we’ve sunk,” a fellow journalist said wryly.

The soggy vigil outside the courthouse was all for naught. When Pistorius did enter the court, he avoided photographers’ attention by using a different entrance to the one journalists were expecting. Perhaps it’s the fact that photographers are no longer allowed to stand millimetres away from his face in the dock, snapping away, but Pistorius seemed more composed than at his emotional bail hearing.

His siblings, Carl and Aimee, now recognisable faces in their own right, arrived earlier and took up their places on the hard court benches. (Those in the know, like Pistorius himself, bring small cushions to ease the ache of extended sitting.) The Pistorius family sat only a metre or so from the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, June, but the two parties showed no signs of acknowledging each other. June Steenkamp wore black. Her husband Barry was not in attendance, having previously suffered a stroke.

June Steenkamp had previously told the Mail On Sunday that while she couldn’t bear to be present in court while the forensic details of her daughter’s last moments were endlessly rehashed, she wanted to be there for the case’s opening and its verdict. “I want to force him to look at me, Reeva’s mother, and see the pain and anguish he has inflicted on me,” Steenkamp told the British tabloid.

Pistorius’ defence team is hell-bent on painting the picture of a couple in a serious, loving relationship, but one of the reminders that Pistorius and Steenkamp had not been together long at all is the fact that he never met her family. Neither did he appear to do so on Monday, and the layout of the courts – where the accused sits with his back to the public – means that Steenkamp is unlikely to have felt particularly fulfilled in her intention.

Not many people who’ve been in a South African court were expecting the proceedings on the first day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial to start on time. (Except, apparently, the producers of the new 24-hour Oscar channel.) As it turned out, despite a full retinue of international journalists waiting with Tweeting devices poised, the trial kicked off around an hour and a half late.

A Department of Justice official confirmed this was due to problems sourcing the necessary interpreter. A rumour quickly circulated that the Afrikaans translator who had been scheduled to do the deed found out last minute that it was the Pistorius case, burst into tears, and refused. You can’t necessarily blame him or her. This is not for the faint-hearted. The successful media application to have much of the Pistorius trial broadcast live has changed the stakes for court functionaries like interpreters, who risk being seen to fail to perform adequately in front of a global audience.

But the media chaos which accompanied last year’s bail hearings was at least a thing of the past inside the courtroom itself, with the pre-planned accreditation system – giving half the available seats to local journalists, and half to international correspondents – seeming to work reasonably smoothly. Journalists relegated to the overflow room, where proceedings are watched on camera, may feel differently – given that the state’s first witness requested not just that her face be concealed to TV broadcasts, but also to the overflow room.

With Pistorius pleading not guilty to the charges of murder and reckless discharging of a firearm in public, the defence laid out their roadmap for the case. Much is already familiar from the bail hearing. Pistorius sticks to his claim that he heard what he thought was an intruder in the bathroom, assumed Reeva Steenkamp was sleeping next to him, and fired into the bathroom in fear and panic, rendered vulnerable by his stumps.

It seems now that the central issue to the case may become the quality and stability of Pistorius’ relationship with Steenkamp. For the state’s claim of premeditated murder to make any sense, they need to establish an argument on the night. If the much-anticipated phone records give up no secrets, their most plausible way of doing this is through the testimony of witnesses who claim to have heard screaming, shouting or raised voices before gunshots.

The state’s first witness, University of Pretoria lecturer Michelle Burger, has already testified along these lines. You can see why the state would have wanted to open with a witness like Burger, a PhD-holder, who despite her relative youth was calm, self-assured and resolute in her testimony. This was doubly impressive given the two substantial factors she had working against her: firstly, the unrelenting interrogation of Pistorius’ top attack-dog Barry Roux; and secondly, some seemingly shoddy Afrikaans-to-English translation from the substitute interpreter.

It’s easy to make more of the interpreter issue than might seem warranted because it fits neatly into the narrative established by the ‘fake interpreter’ at Mandela’s memorial, Thamsanqa Jantjie. Indeed, as court broke up for the day, at least one British radio correspondent could be heard building the larger part of his story around this trend in a crossing to his station. But there is a genuine issue here which deserves much more in-depth attention: if South African courts and public events can’t get translations right for the most high-profile of occasions, one can only imagine the difficulties they pose in everyday legal situations.

Burger’s testimony was effective because she stated repeatedly that she heard a woman’s voice raised in terror and anguish; a voice so permeated with fear, in fact, that she said it took a lasting emotional toll on her. The tabloids, unsurprisingly, have already run with this in characteristically understated style. Front page of The Daily Star, UK, Tuesday: “PISTORIUS SENSATION: I heard Reeva’s bloodcurdling death scream”.

But the problem with Burger’s version of events is that, on the surface, they don’t seem to make much sense to the state’s case. She claims she woke up hearing a woman’s screams, and yells for help from both a woman and a man. Then, Burger claims, the woman screamed again, more intensely, and she heard four gunshots. The idea that both a woman and a man would be yelling for help before any gunshots were fired would not seem to fit with what the state is trying to prove.

Roux, for the defence, worked at persuading the witness that her recollection of events may have been retro-fitted in accordance with what she heard and read in media accounts of the evening, which Burger has acknowledged following closely. It seems, too, that the defence’s claim is that the loud bangs Burger heard were not gunshots, but rather the sound of Pistorius clobbering down the bathroom door after realising that Reeva might be inside. Their further claim – which Roux says a later witness will attest to – is that in times of anguish Pistorius’ voice can reach a pitch which may be mistaken for that of a woman.

The defence argues, in other words, that there was no man and woman yelling at each other on the night of 14th February; that Burger heard just one voice – Pistorius’ – alternating between a high and low pitch in his panic and sorrow before he bashed in the bathroom door.

What was interesting, however, was Burger’s repeated testimony that her immediate inference as to what was going on was that a husband and wife were being attacked by intruders. As commentators noted on Twitter, a more statistically valid inference, in a South African context, would have been that an episode of domestic violence was taking place. Burger’s immediate assumption that the likelihood was some form of armed attack gives credence, in its way, to Pistorius’ claim that he felt himself under threat even in a secure, upmarket area.

When quizzed about her familiarity with the precise sound of gunshots, too, Burger replied that she had heard gunshots before “in my neighbourhood”: a neighbourhood shared by Pistorius. Many said that, even if true, Pistorius’ intruder story spoke of remarkable paranoia. But the very first witness in the case has given the suggestion that such fears and assumptions are by no means unique to the disabled athlete. This may be a gift to the defence’s case.

If proceedings were largely dignified and orderly within the courtroom, the same can’t be said for the scenes which accompanied Pistorius’ exit. A wild scrum attended Pistorius’ bundling into a vehicle to be driven away, with a sea of baying photographers, journalists and curious Pretoria locals running alongside the car. As had been pointed out on social media earlier in the day, some of these same journalists and photographers had been pulled from the coverage of war-zones and dispatched to the Pistorius trial. It’s a battlefield of a different kind. DM

Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius arrives in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 3, 2014. “Blade Runner” Pistorius pleaded not guilty on Monday to murdering his girlfriend at the start of a trial with massive media cover that could see one of global sports’ most admired role models go to jail for life. (REUTERS/Herman Verwey/Pool)

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