Knowledge 2.0.
20 March 2018 10:05 (South Africa)
Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week 2, Day 3

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc

And on the 8th day, they brought in the door. We arrived at courtroom GD this morning to find what appears to be - yet to be confirmed - Pistorius's actual bathroom door, erected in the court. Let's hope it's a less wooden witness than Darren Fresco. REBECCA DAVIS is there to monitor developments.

09.00 We're back in the courtroom - and apparently Narnia, which is probably the last time a bunch of people were so excited to see a door. While we wait for court proceedings to start, lawyers from both sides - and Pistorius himself - have been giving the door a good inspection.

Pistorius was on another PR offensive this morning, stopping to extend his hand to a member of the ANC Women's League, who hesitated before taking it and shaking it. In other breaking news, he's no longer wearing the glasses which appeared on his face yesterday morning.

We may wait a while to get through the door - so to speak - because to the best of our knowledge we're not done with the cross-examination of Darren Fresco. And indeed, Fresco and his luxuriant hair have just taken up their positions in the dock. We're good to go.

11.00 Tea-time at the North Gauteng High Court, after some interesting testimony from forensic analyst JG Vermeulen and the final, shambolic appearance of the legendary Darren Fresco.

Nel initially led Fresco in some seemingly damaging testimony against Pistorius, in which Fresco said that Pistorius spent the drive back from the Vaal with his gun unholstered between his legs - safety first, boys! - and never asked Fresco to slow his speed. Fresco also said that he had taken a picture of the speedometer when Pistorius had been driving the car, on the way to the Vaal, and it had registered over 200 km/h.

When Roux re-questioned Fresco, he was in best strike mode. Fresco confirmed that he had taken a photo of the car's speedometer while Pistorius was driving, and said further that no photo was taken while Fresco was driving. Roux promptly produced a photo taken by Fresco at 16h41, when Fresco was driving, showing the speedometer registering a casual 260 km/h.

Fresco, who by now had established his PhD in selective amnesia, did not remember taking the photo. Roux accused the IT network engineer of also being an engineer of false evidence. Fresco was silent. "I do not remember, milady," he repeated.

With Fresco eventually released from his torment back to the world of IT networks and speedometer selfies, we were able to get on with the day's real action: The Door.

Forensic analyst Johannes Vermeulen confirmed that the door in front of us in the courtroom is THEEEE door. It appears to have been reconstructed, though: it has two small white markings showing where the wood originally split.

Vermeulen, who has participated in 1400 forensic investigations and has 29 years' experience, said that the marks on the door were consistent with bashing from a cricket bat. Producing THEEEE cricket bat, Vermeulen demonstrated the likely action which someone would use to make the marks, swinging the cricket bat back with his arms raised.

(Random cricket bat-related fact: it has a number of signatures of well-known cricketers on it. We now know who at least one of them is. Herschelle Gibbs (@hershybru) tweeted: "Just saw my signature on the bat used by the accused in oscar #neveradullmoment". Lol indeed, Hershy.)

The major significance of Vermeulen's testimony is that due to the low height at which the bat struck the door, Vermeulen says the marks are consistent with Pistorius not having his legs on. This directly contradicts the testimony of Pistorius in his bail affidavit, in which he says, after realising Steenkamp was not in bed:

"I put on my prosthetic legs, ran back to the bathroom, and tried to kick the toilet door open...I went back into the bedroom and grabbed my cricket bat to bash open the toilet door. A panel or panels broke off and I found the key on the floor and unlocked and opened the door."

When we're back, we'll hear how Roux proposes to explain away this contradiction.

13.00 Lunch at the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, where we've seen some exciting live-action re-enactments of the cricket bat being swung at the door. Unfortunately, we've yet to properly hear the cricket bat make contact with the door, which is a bit of a pity given that the question of what, exactly, that sounds like is now pretty much a national obsession. (Here's a clip comparing cricket bat sounds to gunshot noises.)

Roux is attempting to chip away at Colonel Vermeulen's testimony that the marks on the door are consistent with Pistorius having swung at it while on his stumps. Roux's assertion is that equally low marks on the door could be produced if Pistorius had been wearing his prosthetic legs, but had simply stood further back and bent his back while swinging. Roux asked Vermeulen to demonstrate this hypothetical posture repeatedly. Vermeulen responded each time that it was a very "unnatural" posture.

"Why is the natural position according to you the same as the natural position according to Mr Pistorius?" Roux asked.

There was a nice little piece of theatre when Vermeulen got down on his knees to demonstrate the angle from which he believed Pistorius wielded the bat. Roux then asked him to lift his feet up while swinging the bat. Vermeulen could not maintain his balance. Roux said that Pistorius would likely have been similarly unable to maintain the necessary balance on his stumps.

"If he had enough balance to fire a firearm, I would suspect he had enough balance to hit the door," Vermeulen fired back.

We always suspected that the defence's case would rest partly on discrediting the quality of the state's police investigation, and Roux picked this up this morning. He asked about the provenance of additional marks on the door, apparently sustained while the door was in police custody. Vermeulen replied that the door had not been in his care. Missing parts of the door were also questioned.

Just before we adjourned, Vermeulen said something important. He said that the evidence was consistent with shots having been fired through the door BEFORE the door was hit by the cricket bat. This was always the public understanding of the sequence of events, but since the trial began, some have suggested that the door could have been bashed down FIRST, followed by shots, in order to make sense of the timeline of two sets of bangs provided by the estate witnesses last week. In Vermeleun's estimation, this wasn't the case.

15.00 Court is over for the day, and I'm afraid that the major impression we're left with again is some big problems with the quality of police investigation and the retention of evidence. In fact, it may be this, ultimately, that will scupper the state's case against Oscar Pistorius.

When we broke for lunch, Colonel Vermeulen had expressed ignorance as to the whereabouts of missing splinters of wood from the door. But Roux showed a photo to the court - which Vermeulen was actually IN - which revealed the missing door splinters to be lying just behind the door. How was this not seen? asked Roux. Vermeulen said that he was focused on investigating the angle at which the cricket bat had struck the door.

Roux then drew Vermeulen's attention to a mark below the door handle, and asked if it had been investigated. The defence would present evidence, he said, to prove that the mark would have been caused by Oscar's prosthesis kicking in the door. In fact, the fabric of the sock is still embedded in the door, Roux suggested.

(If the defence can convincingly make this case, it will support Pistorius's claim in his bail affidavit that he pulled on his legs and attempted to kick in the door.)

Vermeulen said that another potential explanation for the prosthetic mark could be that Pistorius had stumbled over the plank when it was lying on the floor. Roux scoffed at the idea that this could cause the mark in question.

Vermeulen had to concede that nobody had specifically investigated the mark on the door, despite the fact that Pistorius had mentioned trying to kick the door in in his bail affidavit. He himself had not read Pistorius's bail affidavit initially, he said, because he wanted to remain as objective as possible in his approach to the evidence.

In the end, Vermeulen only became acquainted with Pistorius's version of events last week, when he happened to see the statement lying in a file at the lawyers' chambers, and read it. Roux asked if he did not think to re-open the investigation, learning that Pistorius claimed to have tried to kick open the door, even then. Vermeulen replied that he decided not to "bother with [Pistorius's] version" - almost certainly a clumsy phrasing from a second-language English speaker, but it didn't sound great.

Evidence of police sloppiness continued. Roux returned again to the matter of wood-splints overlooked by police. Police footprints were on the door panels, Roux said, and then subsequently wiped off. Vermeulen had to admit that he received both the cricket bat and door in an altered condition to their appearance at the crime scene because of how they had been handled and transported by police.

Most damningly, a "significant" mark is now on the door that it lacked at the scene of the crime.
The only possible explanation is that the door - one of the most crucial pieces of evidence in the Pistorius case - was not treated with anything near the necessary levels of care and fastidiousness while it was in police care. To what degree any evidence stemming from it can even be used now is unclear.

This is the stuff that the defence is going to jump all over, and it's stuff that the most agile of lawyers will struggle to explain away. The truly depressing part of it all: if this is the quality and care of police work in the most high-profile South African trial of recent years, can you imagine what's going on in more lowly courts?

  • Rebecca Davis
    bec photo
    Rebecca Davis

    Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.  

  • Life, etc

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