Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week 2, Day 4

By Rebecca Davis 13 March 2014

It's the fourth day of the second week of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. Yesterday's star witness - what 'Beeld' today called the 'Deur van Dood' (Door of Death) - is still in the courtroom, its silence an eloquent testimony to its mistreatment at police hands. REBECCA DAVIS is staring intently at it.

09.00. And on the Ninth Day, the Door was still there, and the gathered crowd prepared to hear more stuff about it. Colonel Vermeulen will be back on the stand first thing to face the defence’s Barry Roux, who has been making much of the apparent alterations in the door’s appearance in the time between the crime scene and its turn in court. You know the drill…

11.00. Tea-time at Pistoriusville, after possibly the most tedious session of the trial thus far. Many of us here – well, me, at least – have been falling into a catatonic state listening to Barry Roux’s continued drilling of Colonel Vermeulen on the same subjects as yesterday: why he did not investigate the whereabouts of missing wood-chips from the door; why he did not investigate the possibility that a mark on the door could have been caused by Pistorius’s attempts to kick in the door while wearing his prosthetic legs.

We were exposed briefly to some fairly gruesome-looking photos of the crime scene, noteworthy for the quantity of blood visible in most. In skipping through the police photos, an image of Reeva Steenkamp’s body was briefly visible. A picture of the door showed the proximity of the four bullet holes shot through it to each other, spanning a radius of only about 10 cm. Another photo showed Pistorius’s prosthetic legs smeared with blood, which Roux used to bolster claim that the accused had been wearing his legs when he entered the toilet.

Vermeulen is resolutely sceptical about this version, reiterating his claim that the angle at which the cricket bat struck the door would be “unnatural” for Pistorius to have adopted if he were wearing his legs.

More insinuations of police incompetence and, indeed, corruption were also forthcoming. Roux suggested that it would have been “fantastic” if a qualified footprint examiner had carried out tests on the scene, as didn’t happen. Roux also mentioned – though didn’t make much of it – that it is alleged that a number of Pistorius’s watches disappeared from the crime scene. Vermeulen said in response that it had not been his responsibility to make an inventory of crime scene elements.

Roux concluded his cross-examination by urging Vermeulen to watch a viral clip currently on YouTube where a random American oke compares the sounds of gunshots to cricket bats. He went so far as to spell out the link for him. This seems a little strange, given that the video has not been entered into evidence and numerous commentators have pointed out that there are a number of significant acoustic elements which distinguish the YouTube test from the actual conditions of Steenkamp’s shooting. But it appears that even distinguished defence lawyers will leap on a viral clip if expedient – and not hesitate to bring it to the attention of the public.

13.00. Lunch time chez Pistorius trial, where things are marginally more interesting since Colonel Vermeulen left the stand. In his re-examination by the state’s Gerrie Nel, Nel put it to Vermeulen that even if Pistorius had left a kick mark in the toilet door, as the defence claims, it could have been for an alternative reason other than to gain access to the room: to intimidate the victim. Vermeulen speculated that this was possible, he supposed.

Our next witness called by the state is Schoombie van Rensburg, who is continuing the trend among expert witnesses of giving testimony standing up. Van Rensburg was the commander of the Boschkop police station until his retirement in December last year, and racked up 29 years of service within the SAPS.

Led by Nel, Van Rensburg indicated that he was dealing with an armed robbery complaint before being called to Pistorius’s house on the morning of 14th February as the closest commanding officer to the scene. He said he arrived at the house with another officer at around 03.55, to find an ambulance already in place with its doors open. A white BMW and a black Mini Cooper were also parked outside Pistorius’s house.

Upon entering the house, van Rensburg was approached by a female paramedic who informed him that the body of the victim was lying on towels and black bags, and was dead upon their arrival. The paramedic then proceeded to show van Rensburg the wounds to Steenkamp’s head, hip, right arm and hand.

Moving to the kitchen, van Rensburg encountered the accused  – a “white male”. (Van Rensburg is the second witness, after Johan Stipp, to testify that he did not know who Pistorius was upon meeting him under these circumstances.) When van Rensburg asked him what happened, he did not respond because he was in tears. Van Rensburg immediately gave the order to contact the mortuary and bring in forensics and fingerprint experts.

Estate manager Johan Stander’s daughter Clarice told van Rensburg that she had asked Pistorius to fetch materials to help stem the bleeding, and the two had attempted to do so together. The paramedics were then called. Stander also told van Rensburg that when she and her father arrived on the scene, Pistorius had told them he had mistaken the deceased for an intruder.

At this point the notorious Hilton Botha – ironically the most experienced investigator available – arrived on the scene. Van Rensburg explained that he and his fellow officer had been on duty for 24 hours at that stage – a rather depressing insight into the life of a South African cop, for all the flak they’re getting in the course of this case.

Something else rather depressing: the quality of the Afrikaans-to-English interpretation during the last session was again far from adequate, with Barry Roux taking it upon himself to rise every now and then to fill in gaps or correct the interpreter’s inaccuracies. Why can’t we get our court interpretation services right?

15.00. End of the day at the Pistorius trial, where we had an afternoon session consisting of being taken on a very elaborate virtual tour of Pistorius’s house. If we hadn’t had to face the horror of the bathroom at the end, it could have been an estate agent’s slideshow – unless you were eagle-eyed enough to spot the blood splatters leading from Pistorius’s bedroom to the house’s entrance hall. An estate agent’s slideshow in a horror movie, in other words.

Pistorius’s house, as of the 14th of February, was extremely tidy – speaking either of a meticulous nature or regular visits from a cleaner. The decor was tasteful but kind of characterless: wooden features, an Nguni hide in the lounge, framed photographs of scenery. In Pistorius’s bedroom, more of a hint as to interests. An air-gun was propped up near the bedroom door, near a baseball bat. A display case featured multiple pairs of Oakley sunglasses (Pistorius’s sponsors).

Cellphones were balanced on top of a hi-fi system, with some syringes nearby – which police witness Vermeulen did not explain at this time. A gun magazine, holster and ammunition were photographed, kept in a drawer on the right-hand side of the bed. On a leather chair next to the bed, a black Virgin Active sports bag – tagged as an “overnight bag” – was perched.

A cartridge casing was photographed in the bedroom near the entrance to the bathroom. In the bathroom itself, photographs reveal a lot of blood (or ‘suspected blood’, as the cautious police language has it). Blood stains were spattered on tiles, basins and the floor, where a cricket bat, bloodied towels and a cartridge casing lay.

In front of the shower was the gun used to kill Steenkamp. Because the hammer was still pulled back, the gun was still ready to fire. A black iPhone was found nearby, and a white iPhone later. The bathroom window was open.

The final photograph showed the key to the toilet door on the outside of the toilet – ie, openable from the bathroom. For a second this seemed strange – especially as one of Reeva’s friends turned around and nodded knowledgeably and meaningfully at the journalists behind her at this point – until you remember that it fits perfectly with Pistorius’s version of events given in his bail affidavit.

There, he said that he bashed through the door’s panels – photographs show the upper inner panels of the door smashed out – and grabbed the key as it fell, enabling him to open the door from the outside. The photograph of the key on the outside of the door would therefore seem to lend credence to this version.

Barry Roux will get his go at Vermeulen tomorrow. He will no doubt bring up the issue of the missing wood chips from the door again, since they featured prominently in several photos shown today. He also doubtless has numerous ideas of how else the police may have compromised the crime scene.

In other news, it’s now being reported that the trial will indeed run past its allocated 14 days – as we all suspected. It’s now being said that the trial will sit until the 4th of April, followed by a recess until the 11th, with new dates set after that. Heavens alive, does anyone remember we have an election to focus on?

 

Photo by Reuters.

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