Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week 2, Day 2

By Rebecca Davis 11 March 2014

Does time operate differently within the walls of the North Gauteng High Court? Is it a Narnia-like wormhole to an alternative dimension? Will journalists emerge from the Pistorius trial still youthful and sprightly, only to find all their loved ones withered and grey? REBECCA DAVIS ponders these questions as she prepares to bring you updates from the seventh day of the trial.

09.00 Good morning from the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, where we’re braced for a continuation of yesterday’s grisly proceedings. Pathologist Gert Saayman is due to take the stand again this morning to finish being led in evidence by the state’s Gerrie Nel, though Nel has indicated that he only needs another fifteen minutes or so with him.

Then the defence’s Barry Roux will get his chance at cross-examination. It’s not clear what angle he’ll want to take. Saayman said yesterday that the pathologist sent by the Pistorius family to the Steenkamp postmortem, Reggie Perumal, had agreed with his findings at the time, so Roux may not be able to quibble too much with Saayman’s evidence. But one of Roux’s priorities may be to undermine Saayman’s testimony that it looked as if Steenkamp had eaten around two hours before her death, at about 1am, which sits uneasily with Pistorius’s claim that the couple went to bed at 10pm.

Yesterday’s order by Judge Masipa will apply to Saayman’s testimony again today, so we won’t be able to live-tweet from the courtroom, or report his words vebatim. But we’ll be bringing you summaries after the fact, as we’re permitted to do.

UPDATE: Judge Masipa has decided that journalists will be able to live-tweet Saayman’s proceedings after all, after going out and familiarising herself with the latest developments in social media. Masipa has also assented to lawyer Nick Ferreira’s suggestion, on behalf of the media houses, that a summarised package of Saayman’s most inoffensive content may be allowed to be broadcast later today with the assent of the state and the defence.

11.00 Tea-time at the Pistorius trial, but this is actually our second adjournment of the day: stop-start justice in action today.

We started off with pathologist Gert Saayman back on the stand. (A Twitter associate pointed out that of the protagonists in the courtroom yesterday, Saayman, Pistorius and media lawyer Nick Ferreira all attended the same school: Pretoria Boys’ High. Use/don’t use.)

We were spared any further gruesome details as to Steenkamp’s death, with Nel seeking merely to establish Saayman’s expertise in the eyes of the court: Saayman said he had performed between 10 and 15 000 autopsies.

When the defence’s Roux got his chance to cross-examine Saayman, as predicted, he chose to question Saayman’s estimate that Steenkamp had eaten at around 1am, on the evidence of food in her stomach. The obvious import of this issue is that Pistorius claims the couple went to bed at around 10pm. If Steenkamp was awake eating at 1am, it again opens the door to a suggestion that the two were actually awake far later, which in turn paves the way for the idea of an argument before the shooting.

Roux asked Saayman to cite some of the journal articles he had used to come to his estimate. Then Roux requested a short break to acquaint himself with the material. On return, his aim was to stress the inexactness of forensic pathology in this regard (in fact, Roux practically made it sound like astrology, or the practice of telling the future from animal entrails). This was a point that Saayman had freely made himself yesterday, however.

Roux asked Saayman to read out a chunk of a journal article which stated that estimates of the number of hours between eating and death must be dependent on the amount of food eaten, and the volume. Again, Saayman conceded that this was the case, but said that science should abide by that which was most probable. Roux stood down.

Under re-examination by Nel, Saayman said – significantly – that he believed it would be abnormal for someone not to scream after experiencing wounds of the type sustained by Steenkamp. The defence maintains that the only screams heard that night were Pistorius’s.

Saayman was a strong, clear and confident witness, who had clearly spent many hours doing just this in courtrooms. He also stood up to deliver his entire testimony, which seemed to give him a sense of authority in the room. (An idea for future witnesses?) Roux didn’t seem to make much headway in casting doubt on Saayman’s theories – which are potentially damaging to the defence’s case.

13h00. Pistorius’s friend Darren Fresco has finally been called to the stand. We say ‘friend’, but all signs are pointing towards ‘ex-friend’. There’s the content of Fresco’s testimony, which is unflattering to Pistorius. There’s the glowering stare that Pistorius seemed to be giving Fresco. There’s the fact that we witnessed Pistorius make an overture to Fresco’s new wife in the public gallery – he reached out to grasp her hand – and be awkwardly rebuffed. And a journalist colleague says that her impression from talking to mutual friends of Fresco and Pistorius is that the friendship is dead in the water.

Fresco has lovely long hair and a Twitter bio which reads: “If it’s got wheels or a skirt, it’s gonna cost you money”. He is not a very convincing witness, claiming an extremely selective memory.

His version of the incident in which Pistorius fired a shot out of Fresco’s car’s sunroof after a day on the Vaal, which Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend Sam Taylor also testified to last week, is that Pistorius let the gun off “without warning”.

In possibly the quote of the trial thus far, Fresco says he responded to this action of Pistorius’s with: “Are you fucking mad?”

This testimony contradicts that given by Taylor (herself not the most solid of witnesses), who told the court that Fresco and Pistorius had been angry after being stopped by police and had both been joking about shooing out traffic lights. Fresco denied this.

It must be said that the picture which is emerging of Pistorius’s social scene is not hugely flattering: a group of fast-driving, gun-toting young men with a seeming disregard for consequences and an apparent sense of immunity and impunity about their journey through the world. On the day when Pistorius allegedly fired through the sunroof, Fresco was pulled over in his car twice in the course of one trip: firstly because the car had no numberplates, and secondly because he was speeding at an alleged 260 km/h. Fresco received the first ticket and crumpled it up, tossing it aside.

Were the fines he received paid, Roux asked Fresco. Fresco said vaguely that he believed they had been taken care of by the owner of the car dealership to whom the car belonged – Justin Divaris, Pistorius’s best friend and himself on the state’s witness list.

In discussing the incident at Tasha’s last year when Fresco passed his gun to Pistorius and it allegedly went off, Fresco said he felt comfortable passing his gun to Pistorius because he knew he “loved weapons” and “thought he was competent” at handling them. After the incident, Fresco repeated Kevin Lerena’s testimony last week that Pistorius had asked Fresco to take the blame “because of all the media hype”. Roux pointed out that Fresco’s initial statement had contained no mention of this.

After the sunroof shooting incident, Fresco said he, Pistorius and Taylor had had dinner together – he remembered a “beautiful sunset”. As they left the restaurant, a woman had stopped Pistorius to chat to him. The topic was something about golf, Fresco thought. Yet despite Fresco’s ability to remember the beauty of the sunset and the subject of a fleeting conversation Pistorius had with a stranger, Fresco claims not to be able to recall a single, solitary thing about the evening that followed the dinner.

Roux, who was just hitting his stride in the cross-examination when the break arrived, must be licking his lips over lunch.

15.15 Oh, Darren. If anything, Fresco’s afternoon performance was slightly less successful than his earlier stint. On the stand Fresco is evasive, defensive, and stumbles into traps laid by Barry Roux like a defenceless faun.

Fresco claimed to be unfamiliar with the content of his own statement because he allegedly hadn’t read it in preparation for his court appearance. (Roux was only too happy to help him out by providing him with a copy). Unfortunately, he revealed himself to be rather more familiar with other people’s evidence, given in court before him – naturally raising the question of whether he was tailoring his testimony to fit these other versions more closely.

For instance, Fresco said that he had been wearing shorts on the day of the Tasha’s shooting incident. Previous witness Kevin Lerena, however, had testified that he thought that Fresco was in tracksuit pants. Roux raised this. “I saw that,” Lerena said. On Twitter, it emerged, and on the radio, and on TV. It’s another element of this crazy new media landscape which courts have to navigate: that in a trial of this scale, it may be very difficult for witnesses to live a normal life and yet remain unexposed to trial-related information.

The fact remains that some of the most damaging aspects of Fresco’s testimony about the Tasha’s incident – that he passed Pistorius a gun and ensured that he was heard when he told him that there was a bullet in the chamber; that Pistorius immediately asked Fresco to lie for him – were not in his initial statement, a point made much of by Roux. Nonetheless, Fresco’s testimony matched what Kevin Lerena said he believed had happened.

Roux pushed at a version of events which saw Pistorius be unaware that he was passed a loaded gun. By repeatedly asking Fresco to explain how close he and Pistorius were to each other when he informed Pistorius the gun was loaded, Roux tried to make the case that in a noisy restaurant, it was plausible that Pistorius had not heard Fresco. Remember, folk, that “reasonable doubt” is all he has to get at.

Towards the end of the day, Fresco was asked who paid the bill for lunch. He replied that he couldn’t remember, but that Pistorius generally picked up the tab. Is this the way their relationship worked: Pistorius paying the bills, Fresco taking the rap?

Fresco’s time on the stand will continue tomorrow, but the holes in his testimony mean that it is unlikely to hugely bolster the state’s case. When most people consider the court revelations of Day 7, however, they will likely remember the image painted of Pistorius and his friends’ reckless, apparently consequence-free jolling; and pathologist Gert Saayman’s conviction that it is most probable that Reeva Steenkamp ate her last meal around 1am. That surely won’t be the last we’ll be hearing of either point.



Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius reacts during a testimony at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 10, 2014. Pistorius is on trial for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his suburban Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day last year. REUTERS/Bongiwe Mchunu/Pool


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