There are, mercifully, slightly dryer conditions in Pretoria today as we await the commencement of the third day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. REBECCA DAVIS is on hand to bring you updates from the North Gauteng High Court throughout the day.
9.00 Day 3 of the Pistorius Trial. There’s already been a small but noticeable reduction in the number of media present, likely due to the increasing tensions in the Ukraine. A court official has just told off the media for not showing sufficient respect for Judge Masipa, in terms of observing silence when she leaves and enters the room.
We’ll be likely kicking off with the cross-examination of Charl Johnson, husband of Michelle Burger, by Pistorius’s lawyer Barry Roux. Yesterday the soft-spoken Johnson gave testimony which closely corroborated his wife’s, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll show the same strength under pressure.
We have a contingent from the ANC Women’s League in the courtroom today, together with Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane. Unclear why Mokonyane chose today to make an appearance. We’ll be keeping you posted throughout the day.
11.00 We’re currently in adjournment at the North Gauteng High Court, where witness Charl Johnson is supplying iPad notes of his recollections of the events of 14th February.
Court kicked off with an interesting sideshow again. You may recall that yesterday defence Advocate Barry Roux read Johnson’s cellphone number out in court in full, while making a point about Burger’s statement to police investigators and the fact that she’d supplied her husband’s number. This morning, with the state’s Gerrie Nel wrapping up his questioning of Johnson, he asked if the witness was aware that his number had been read out in court. Johnson replied that he was, and indicated that he had received a high number of texts and calls since then. (He said one call was from an “international person”, which almost certainly means a foreign news outlet.)
At least some of the texts were abusive, with one asking him why his wife was lying in court. Judge Masipa did not comment on Roux’s behaviour in reading out Johnson’s number, but it does seem akin to a form of intimidation. Many of us here at the court are commenting that the broadcast of the trial may be a double-edged sword when it comes to recruiting future witnesses. The NPA struggles as it is to attract trial witnesses, and if half the country thinks that Roux’s gruelling cross-examination is the fate that awaits each witness called to the stand – well, you can understand why people might not feel able to face that.
The bulk of Roux’s cross-examination of Johnson this morning has been taken up with pointing out “coincidences” – at least six of them – between Johnson’s court testimony and that of his wife. Roux is suggesting that the two colluded on their court stories, because both included certain facts and phrasings in their court testimony that were not in their initial statements to court investigators. Though Johnson remains very softly-spoken, he stuck to his guns like his wife, saying it was only natural for the two to have similar recollections of a happening they both shared.
Roux made the same suggestion that he made to Burger, that what Johnson had heard and taken for gunshots was actually the sound of Pistorius’s cricket bat breaking the door down. his flourish here was the creation of a timeline which he offered as evidence. Johnson had said that he had phoned security, after hearing the gunshots, at 3.19:30. But Pistorius, Roux said, had called his friend Justin Stander 2 and a half minutes earlier.
Roux’s point is that if Johnson was able to hear the sound of gunshots, he should have been able to hear the sound of Pistorius bashing the door down. Roux says Pistorius called Stander only after bashing the door down; therefore, the sounds Johnson heard immediately before must have been the cricket bat on the door. Johnson remained adamant that he is familiar with the sound of gunshots, and that’s what he heard.
We’re on a break now because Johnson is providing the court with a copy of the notes he made of the events of 14th February, to prove that there are no inconsistencies between his initial recollections and his court testimony. This seems like a bit of a gamble. When Johnson mentioned these notes, Roux said (with a hint of menace), that he was sure Johnson wouldn’t mind providing the court with a copy of them. But Johnson replied perfectly calmly that he was happy to, and that he had a copy on his iPad with him.
Johnson’s notes could go either way, then. They could corroborate his version more firmly – or even add additional damaging evidence. In that case, Roux’s gamble – demanding to see a copy – might be a bit of a risky move.
12.45 It’s an early lunch at the Pistorius trial, so we didn’t have a lot of action between the tea-break and now. We were supposed to return to see copies of Charl Johnson’s notes distributed to the court, but the defence’s Gerrie Nel came back to say they needed more time to make copies, and asked permission to let Johnson stand down in the interim. Judge Masipa acceded.
And so the state called their next witness: boxer Kevin Lerena, a friend of Pistorius’s. Lerena is in the stand because he was involved in the shooting incident at Tasha’s in Melrose Arch in January last year, which led to Pistorius facing additional charges now for the accidental discharge of a firearm.
Lerena has consented to have his face broadcast in the live TV feed of the trial. He is the first witness to do so. This means that Lerena is probably the first witness in a criminal trial to be broadcast live in South Africa. History in the making, folks.
Lerena testified that he met Pistorius at a track day at Kyalami Racecourse, and seems to have been a little starstruck. Lerena is an up-and-coming boxer; Pistorius was the established sports star. Pistorius agreed to help him work out a diet, and according to Lerena was also assisting him with some running coaching in January 2013.
Lerena met Pistorius and two other friends – Pistorius’s UK training partner Martin Rooney, and local pal Darren Fresco – at Tasha’s, a restaurant in Joburg, mid 2013. Lerena testified that Fresco passed a gun under the table to Pistorius, and said: “One up.”
For those of you who do not move in lo-ridin’ circles where passing each other a gun over your Eggs Benedict is routine, “one up” means that there is a bullet in the chamber. (As you might recall, a Nike ad featuring Pistorius at the time of the shooting of Steenkamp had the pay-off line: “I am the bullet in the chamber”. Pistorius was “one up”, one might say.)
The gun went off when Pistorius was handling it and narrowly missed Lerena’s foot. Before the manager came to the table to complain, Pistorius told Fresco that there was too much “media hype” around him and asked Fresco to take the fall instead, which Fresco did. Lerena never spoke about it again, until newspapers besieged him with calls a few days after Steenkamp’s shooting when the incident came to light.
Roux asked for more time to prepare questions for the cross-examination of Lerena, which is why we’re having a long lunch. But in reality, we’re unlikely to see much of a grilling. Lerena is Pistorius’s friend and seems poised to protect and defend him. As such, it’s in the defence’s interests to soft-bowl him some queries designed to elicit responses showing Pistorius in the best possible light. It’s when the prosecution’s Nel gets the chance to re-examine that things might get interesting.
15h00. We’ve finished for the day at the Pistorius trial after disposing with three witnesses in rapid succession. All three – Kevin Lerena, Jason Loupis and Maria Loupis – were giving evidence relating to the charges Pistorius faces of recklessly discharging a firearm in public.
Lerena was dealt with quickly by Roux in cross-examination, with Roux seeking to press the point that Pistorius was contrite and apologetic after the shooting incident in Tasha’s, and that he remonstrated angrily with his friend Darren Fresco for having passed him a loaded gun. Lerena confirmed that Pistorius had been apologetic, and had checked if everyone was OK after the gun went off. Lerena said that he could not confirm whether or not Pistorius had expressed anger with Fresco.
When Nel had his chance for re-examination of Lerena, he merely asked Lerena to reiterate what Pistorius had said after the gun was discharged. Lerena repeated that Pistorius had initially apologised for the incident and then asked Fresco to “take the rap” for him.
We were given further insight into the way Pistorius and his pals operated by the testimony of the next witness, franchise-owner of Tasha’s Melrose Arch Jason Loupis. Loupis testified that he heard what he feared was a gunshot but hoped was a balloon popping. (First cricket bats sound like gunshots, now balloons.) When Loupis approached the group’s table to investigate, he testified that Fresco told him: “Sorry Jason, my gun fell out of my tracksuit pants.” Classy stuff.
Loupis’s wife Maria gave similar testimony to her husband, which Roux barely troubled to cross-examine: there’s clearly no denying the incident. Nel pulled out one small rabbit from the hat, however, asking Maria Loupis to point out how frighteningly close by a child had been sitting to Pistorius when he accidentally discharged the firearm. At this revelation, three ANC Women’s League members sitting in front of journalists gasped in horror.
3 days in, 6 witnesses down. We’re still on the ‘lay’ witnesses – no police and no expert witnesses have yet to take the stand. An ex-girlfriend of Pistorius’s was reportedly spotted in the courtroom this morning. If the state calls her to testify tomorrow, we could expect some interesting testimony.
Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius embraces his sister Aimee Pistorius (R) as an unidentified policeman looks on after the second day of his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, March 4, 2014. The judge in Pistorius’ murder trial warned the media to behave on Tuesday after a local television station leaked a photo of the state’s first witness, who had asked that her image not be broadcast. REUTERS/Antoine de Ras/Pool