Life, etc

Pistorius trial: Week 2, Day 5

By Rebecca Davis 14 March 2014

We're finally in double digits, people. This is the tenth day on which Oscar Pistorius will appear in the dock charged with murder. We just have to get through today, and then we can all spend a rewarding weekend working on our own conspiracy theories and rubbishing everyone else's. REBECCA DAVIS is patient and vigilant in the North Gauteng High Court.

09.00 Good morning from courtroom GD. The accused, Mr Oscar Pistorius, is already seated and awaiting the commencement of proceedings, as are we. A journalist colleague suggests: “Today is gonna be a big one.” When quizzed, he admits he has no basis for stating this beyond hope.

When we resume, ex-police commander Schoombie van Rensburg will be back on the stand. Yesterday afternoon he took us on a tour of what the crime scene – Pistorius’s house – looked like on 14 February, 2013. Hopefully the number of blood-splattered pictures left are limited.

11.00 Why, hello. It’s tea time at courtroom GD, where we had a bit of an unpleasant start to the day by plunging straight into photos of the blood-smeared crime scene. From this perspective, Oscar Pistorius for once has the best seat in the house, because the TV screen in front of him has been switched off to spare him the gory details (and, presumably, to spare the rest of us the sounds of his muffled heaving).

We saw some fairly dramatic images of Pistorius himself photographed after police arrived on the scene, standing topless with his shorts, arms and prosthetic legs smeared with blood, and his fists clenched. Lawyers and witness van Rensburg also inspected photographs of Steenkamp’s body and head wounds, but we were mercifully spared this.

Nel, who clearly knew that Barry Roux was going to leap on this like a cop on an unattended watch, brought up the issue of Pistorius’s allegedly missing watches. There were eight watches in a case, van Rensburg explained. One single watch had an estimated value of between R50 000 and R100 000. Van Rensburg said that he saw the watches in Pistorius’s bedroom, but they could not be moved because there was a smear of blood on the case.

Later, the police photographer and a team began work in the bedroom without van Rensburg being present. After van Rensburg joined them, he noticed two watches were missing. He asked police photographer van Staden if he knew anything about them. Van Staden had replied that Pistorius’s sister Aimee had taken one for her brother to wear, but the whereabouts of the other watch were unknown.

All police and experts present were body-searched, together with their cars, but the watch could not be found.

Following the watch theft: another revelation of embarrassing police bungling. Van Rensburg testified that he came upon a ballistics expert handling Pistorius’s gun without wearing gloves.

“Sorry,” the ballistics expert said, when van Rensburg reproached him.

Van Rensburg also attempted to explain the handling of the that vital piece of evidence, the toilet door, which Roux is certainly going to return to. In particular, van Rensburg defended keeping the door in his office for some time on the grounds that there was good security there.

When Roux stood to commence his cross-examination, he laid out his theory from the start. Van Rensburg, he said, was being called by the state to give wider evidence than he was strictly capable of, in order to prevent the need to call the disastrous Hilton Botha to the stand. He’s probably right.

Roux also returned to the fact that van Rensburg had been investigating an armed robbery on a nearby estate when he received the call-out to Pistorius’s place. Every time a witness has mentioned the threat or reality of crime, Roux has been at pains to draw them out on the matter in order to bolster the legitimacy of Pistorius’s claim that he felt his life to be under threat. Roux confirmed that the estate where the robbery happened was affluent, and that affluence was little protection against crime.

After the break, Roux will probably be rolling up his sleeves to get started on the problems with the case’s police work.

13.00 The period between tea-time and lunch has been taken up with the rather tedious ongoing cross-examination of witness van Rensburg by Barry Roux, who is concentrating on casting doubts on van Rensburg’s powers of observation and on attempting to place Hilton Botha on the scene by himself, rather than with van Rensburg as the latter claims.

This is relevant partly because we know from the bail hearing that Botha made some disastrous missteps, such as walking through the crime scene without protective coverings, thus potentially contaminating evidence. It’s also relevant because if Botha was operating alone at various points, the defence can claim that the state’s failure to call him as a witness speaks volumes.

(Note that we don’t yet know if Botha will or won’t be called as a state witness, even though he is on the witness list. When Roux asked him about it earlier, Nel said that he hadn’t made his mind up yet.)

Roux was also able to win various concessions from van Rensburg as to aspects of the crime scene he had mis-observed or failed to record correctly in his testimony. For instance, van Rensburg appeared not to have noticed that the door of Pistorius’s house was sealed differently with crime tape in two different photos from the same day. He also claimed that upon his first visit to Pistorius’s bathroom, he noticed that the cricket bat used to bang the door down had cricketers’ signatures on it. But in fact, he could only have seen this later, when the bat was lifted and overturned.

“How do you feel about your ability to observe?” Roux asked van Rensburg at one point. It was clear from the question what he considered the answer to be.

14.30 We’ve knocked off half an hour early today, with a crack from Roux that he was happy to keep asking the witness questions to fill up the court’s time.

In the afternoon session, Roux didn’t give van Rensburg as much hell as you would have expected about the missteps in police investigation, though he did point out that not one, but two watches of Pistorius’s were stolen from his bedroom. He focused on trying to cast doubt on the authority of police photos from the crime scene to tell a truly authentic picture of what was going on, pointing to a few examples where police had clearly changed elements of the scene.

“You can’t say that photo’s exactly what I saw,” Roux insisted. He also pointed out a discrepancy between one aspect of van Rensburg’s testimony and that of Hilton Botha. Botha said in interviews that Pistorius had been wearing a bloodied T-shirt at the crime scene. Van Rensburg insisted that Pistorius was topless.

The state’s Gerrie Nel was in bullish mood when it came time for re-examination, however, saying that it was difficult to re-examine the witness because Roux had not put to him what he missed or got wrong.

Despite this, the dominant takeaway from this week’s evidence in the Pistorius trial has probably been that of the weaknesses in police investigation. Numerous examples have come to light over the course of this week: the treatment in police custody of the toilet door, and its missing wood-chips; the failure of forensic investigators to exhaustively examine the provenance of certain marks on the door; the fact that a ballistics expert handled Pistorius’s gun without wearing gloves; and, of course, those two missing watches.

In general, it’s seemed a slower week at the trial. Partly, this is because the novelty is fading more every day, but it’s also because it was literally slower in procedural terms. Last week we got through almost twice as many witnesses as this week, though it’s inevitable that expert witnesses will take longer to question than lay witnesses. A week, we’re discovering, can seem a very long time indeed in a court case. DM

Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius takes notes during court proceedings at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 13, 2014. Pistorius is on trial for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his suburban Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day last year. REUTERS/Themba Hadebe/Pool


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