Life, etc

Pistorius trial: Day 4

By Rebecca Davis 6 March 2014

It's the fourth day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. Load shedding threatens to cut power to parts of the country today, but we're assured that it won't affect proceedings at the North Gauteng High Court. As usual, REBECCA DAVIS is set to bring you updates throughout the day.

09.00 There is a slightly surreal sense to the fact that this is only Day 4 of the trial. As a colleague put it yesterday, “are we really going to keep doing this whole Oscar-arrives-in-the-courtroom thing”? While there has been a definite decline in media attendance at the trial, photographers continue to scrum for pictures of Pistorius upon entering and leaving the court. They will do so as long as the public remains hungry; it’s said that Pistorius-related articles have generated over 4 million views on the Media 24 network since the beginning of March.

Today we’re expecting to see the trial’s third witness, Charl Johnson, return to the stand to discuss iPad notes he took of his recollections of sounds heard on the morning of 14th February. It’s also rumoured that Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend Sam Taylor – whose mother tweeted after Steenkamp’s shooting that she was glad her daughter was “out of the clutches of that man” – may take to the stand. We’ll be sure to let you know.

11.30 Tea-time at courtroom GD, where we’re hearing case number CC 113/13, better known as the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. It was Charl Johnson up against Adv Barry Roux again this morning, on the content of notes he’d written on March 6th 2013 about his impressions of the night of Steenkamp’s shooting a few weeks previously.

It’s rare to have witnesses as thorough and methodical as Johnson, who wrote three drafts of his notes. This was a point of contention for Roux, who pointed out that certain aspects of the testimony became more concrete with later drafts. For instance, Johnson’s earliest draft spoke of his wife hearing “about” four or five shots, but later versions removed the ‘about’. Johnson’s explanation of changes within his notes was that he worked hard on getting them in shape because he wanted them to be professional and grammatically-correct for the advocate to whom he initially sent them.

Roux got down to the heart of things when he accused Johnson of having “designed” his testimony to incriminate Pistorius; a claim he put to Johnson’s wife too. Johnson replied that he would have no reason to want to incriminate the accused.

Both Johnson and his wife spoke repeatedly of the fact that they did not wish to initially involve themselves in the trial due to the media attention, but felt a “moral obligation” to come forward after hearing Pistorius’s version of events in the bail hearing and realising that their impressions contradicted this. Still, they wanted to be “neutral”, Johnson said.

Roux repeated his assertion that Johnson had mistaken the sound of a cricket bat breaking down a door for that of gunshots. But Johnson responded that he owned a 9mm gun, similar to that with which Pistorius shot Steenkamp, and was highly familiar with the sound of shots. Johnson also took his time explaining why he didn’t think a cricket bat would make the same sounds, pointing that one could unload shots into a door in much more rapid succession than one would be able to swing a bat back and re-strike a door.

Roux also suggested again that Johnson had mistaken the sounds of a man and woman yelling for help with that of just one man: Pistorius. Johnson replied that he was “confident” he had heard a woman’s scream, and that there was a difference in the kinds of tones to the two voices: that the man’s voice was more monotone, the women’s voice more fearful.

Roux concluded with two parting jabs. First, he asked Johnson to concede that he had never heard a woman and a man yelling simultaneously. Johnson confirmed that this was true. Lastly, he put it again to Johnson that it would have been impossible for him to have heard screaming from Steenkamp in a locked toilet.

Johnson stayed firm. Roux did his best to chip away at his story, but Johnson remained resolute. In fact, it’s tempting to say that it was Johnson rather than Roux who emerged with the upper hand from the morning’s cross-examination. Judge Masipa also had to ask Roux several times to focus his questions.

On a more tabloid-y note, Pistorius’s sister Aimee approached Reeva Steenkamp’s cousin Kim Martin during the tea break, in what might be the first attempt to reach out from the Pistoriuses during this court case. They chatted quietly for a few minutes. Martin initially briefly placed what seemed to be a consoling arm on Aimee, who was clearly tearful. The two parted without embraces.

Today’s date is one that Oscar Pistorius has tattooed on him. 6th March is the date of his mother’s death, 12 years ago. Earlier, his brother Carl posted a tweet in tribute to the anniversary.

We’re now hearing reports that we may not be getting Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend on the stand yet, but rather another neighbour-witness and the pathologist who examined Steenkamp’s body. If so, expect the latter testimony to be harrowing.

13h00. Dramatic and intense testimony coming out of the Pistorius trial in the late morning today, reducing both Oscar Pistorius and the cousin of Reeva Steenkamp, Kim Martin, to tears.

The state’s seventh witness is a radiologist called Johan Stipp, who lives in the same Pretoria estate as Pistorius. Stipp gave what a colleague referred to as a “scorcher of a testimony”, which is exactly right. Stipp was calm, composed and assured throughout. (Also audible, which was a treat for the gathered journalists.)

Stipp lives closer to Pistorius’s house than any witness so far – 72 metres away. A picture was displayed, which caused gasps from the court, to show that Pistorius’s bathroom was visible from Stipp’s bedroom. Stipp says he was woken by the sound of three loud bangs. He said to his wife that the noise sounded like gunshots. He then ran on to the balcony, where he heard a woman screaming three or four times. Then he heard a sequence of more bangs, and a man’s voice crying for help.

Stipp did not know that the house in question belonged to Pistorius. When he drove there, he found a man outside leaning against a white BMW on the phone, who beckoned him to the door, and a woman in the doorway. Stipp introduced himself as a doctor and asked if he could help. Entering the house, he saw a man kneeling over a woman with one hand on her groin and his fingers in her mouth.

“I shot her, I thought it was a burglar,” the man said. (Stipp only found out that the man was Oscar Pistorius later, when he watched news broadcasts.) Pistorius was crying and praying aloud to God, promising that both he and Steenkamp would dedicate their lives to God if God only let her live.

It appears that Steenkamp was still alive, but barely, when Stipp arrived, but that there was little he could do to assist. A Mr Stander, apparently a security manager on the estate, allegedly told Stipp it was hoped that the incident would not get out.

This testimony is significant because:

  • Stipp is now the fourth witness to testify to having heard what sounds like a woman’s screams;
  • Stipp is the first witness so far to have heard two sets of bangs, which would fit initial gunshots followed by the cricket bat breaking the door down;
  • Stipp says he heard screams after the shots, which the defence says is impossible because Steenkamp would have been rendered brain damaged by the head shot immediately. The state begs to differ;
  • Stipp’s testimony raises questions about the identity of the woman and man Stipp saw at Pistorius’s house.

While on the face of it quite damaging to the defence, don’t forget that it’s also a version of events which supports the idea of Pistorius being consumed by grief and anguish after the shooting. That’s something his defence team will likely play up. We’ll be back in court at 14h00.

18h00 What a difference just one court session can make. When we broke for lunch today, it seemed that radiologist Dr Johan Stipp’s testimony would favour the prosecution’s case. But it took just an hour of cross-examination from the defence’s Barry Roux for the picture to seem very much changed.

Roux did not dispute that Stipp had indeed heard two sets of loud bangs, as he claimed. But the ace up his sleeve was again to create a timeline. Stipp heard what he thought were gunshots, and then made a call to security – after which he thought he heard a second set of shots. The call to security was made at 3.17am, it emerges , which fits exactly – timewise – with the idea that the bangs Burger and Johnson heard were the second set of bangs heard by Stipp.

Roux has maintained all along that the bangs heard by Burger and Johnson were those of Pistorius banging down the bathroom door with a cricket bat, rather than gunshots. Stipp, who had previously served in the army, was adamant that the second volley of sounds were “identical” in sound to the first, so he was reluctant to concede that the second set of noises was a cricket bat. But this too fits perfectly with the defence’s case: if they can prove that the first set of noises were gunshots, and the second set of noises were blows from a cricket bat, then Stipp’s testimony bolsters their assertion that witnesses would be unable to tell the difference between the two.

Both the state and the prosecution agree – presumably based on the ballistic evidence – that only four shots were fired, so it seems implausible that Stipp heard three or four gunshots fired, as he suggested, followed by a gap and then another three or four gunshots fired.

Roux was also able to get Stipp to agree, as a medical doctor, that based on the injuries he had observed, Steenkamp would have been unable to scream after the last bullet struck her head. As such, Roux said, any screams heard after 3.17am would have to have been those of Pistorius rather than Steenkamp’s. Stipp continued to maintain that he had heard a woman and a man’s voice “intermingled”, but Roux’s claim continues to be that the only screams he could have heard came from Pistorius.

In sum, then, Stipp conceded that if the first set of shots he heard were the ones that killed Steenkamp, any screams he heard after then would have to have been Pistorius’s.

Nel was keeping his cards close to his chest in most of this, but he told Judge Masipa that the state does not dispute that four shots were fired; and does not dispute that shots fired at or just before 3.17am killed Steenkamp. What the state continues to maintain is that before 3.17am, Steenkamp was “alive and screaming”. Nel said too that any discrepancies between Burger, van der Merwe, Johnson and Stipp’s testimonies would be dealt with and explained by the state in due course.

It’s complex stuff. What you realize increasingly is just how long a road we have to travel here. Advantage between defence and state seems to shift by the hour and is in any case hard to gauge. Trying to make any assumptions as to the outcome of the trial from the vantage point of Day 4 seems plain foolish. DM

Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock on the third day of his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, March 5, 2014. REUTERS/Alon Skuy/Pool

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