Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Three, Day One

By Rebecca Davis 17 March 2014

The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius today enters its third week, against a backdrop of mercifully sunnier Pretoria weather and a week mercifully curtailed by a public holiday at its end. REBECCA DAVIS is standing by to bring you updates.

09.00 It’s our third Monday morning in the North Gauteng High Court. Reeva Steenkamp’s mother June is in court for the first time since her initial appearance on the trial’s first day, with Pistorius’s sister Aimee just seen to approach her briefly for the first time.

Pistorius was displaced from his previously unassailable position on the front page of the Sunday newspapers this weekend by political stuff – ie, real news – though the papers still ran a good few pages of trial coverage inside. Much of this was taken up with recapping the trial thus far. City Press asked legal experts whether they thought the defence or the state had the edge on the case, and the consensus seemed to be that the state had it by a whisker so far.

But who knows whether Judge Thokozile Masipa agrees? Even an hour can drastically change the complexion of things in a court case. We’re here to watch it all so you don’t have to.

11.30 The first witness up for the week was Sean Rens, from the International Firearms Training Academy, who described himself as a “firearm service provider” who provides certification for firearm applications. Rens testified that he met Pistorius in May 2012 through their mutual friend Justin Divaris. (Divaris is rapidly becoming the absent centre of this trial; his name arises seemingly whenever Pistorius’s friends or acquaintances testify.)

Rens told the court, under questioning from the state’s Gerrie Nel, that Pistorius wanted a particular type of revolver: the Smith & Wesson 500, which is apparently known colloquially as a “hand cannon” for its power. Over a number of months Pistorius also applied to buy a number of other guns. (As a ‘normal’ gun-owner in South Africa – ie, not a dedicated collector – you are permitted to own four guns.) After Steenkamp’s shooting, these other gun transactions were cancelled.

Nel had Rens read to the court Pistorius’s responses to a written test about responsible gun ownership. Pistorius had answered that it was not permissible to use lethal force against burglars jumping over his wall or trying to steal his hi-fi. He answered that the only circumstance justifying legal force against an intruder would be if they approached him with a deadly weapon and there was no protective gate between them.

Pistorius’s answers also indicate that he was aware that it was unsafe to fire a gun into the air – as he allegedly did through Darren Fresco’s car’s sunroof in 2012 – and that he believed one should always “know your target and what lies beyond it”.

Nel’s intention was clearly to show that Pistorius was aware of the safety principles governing gun ownership and self-defence, and flouted them. When the defence’s Barry Roux had his turn for the cross-examination of Rens, he didn’t attempt to challenge this. Instead, he got Rens to testify that the ‘Black Talon’ ranger-style ammunition used by Pistorius – widely reported as being intended to effect maximum physical damage – was “less lethal”, though no further evidence for this claim was given.

Roux also inquired of Rens whether there was a link between firearm collecting and recklessness around guns. Not at all, Rens replied.

After Rens’s short stint in the dock, he was replaced with warrant officer Bennie van Staden, the police photographer who took the photos of the crime scene on 14 February after arriving at 04.50am. The majority of his testimony thus far has been taken up with itemising the photos taken, the time at which they were taken, and their contents. Reeva Steenkamp’s mother has left the court for this line of questioning, apparently distressed by seeing the photos of Pistorius covered with her daughter’s blood.

Arguably the most mysterious aspect to emerge from the pre-tea evidence: it appears that blood smatters were photographed above Pistorius’s bed. Where did they come from, and when?

13.00 Lunch at the Pistorius trial, where we’ve been treated to more of the somewhat numbing inventory of the photographs taken of the crime scene by the police’s Bennie van Staden. Van Staden took no less than fifteen albums’ worth of photos of the scene, though fortunately we weren’t made to go through every single picture.

There is little to report of special interest at this point. We were shown a picture of Pistorius’s safe, kept in a cupboard in the passage to his bathroom, which holds – among other things – his medals and the box of special .38 bullets for which he is facing a charge of illegal ammunition possession.

Van Staden confirmed that there is a full alarm system at Pistorius’s house, including beams outside, which was not triggered during the evening of the shooting. Viewing photos of the exterior of Pistorius’s property, which also showed his two dogs, it was intriguing to note an apparently broken window in the lounge, though no shards of glass were evident.

Calling for an early lunch adjournment, Gerrie Nel explained that he believed he was finished with the questioning of the witness, but requested a chance to go over his notes to make sure. When Barry Roux rises for cross-examination, he may intend to pay some attention to van Staden’s admission that certain elements of the crime scene had been moved around.

15.00 We’ve finished our post-lunch session, so that concludes probably the most uneventful day of the Pistorius murder trial to date. Nel’s questioning of court photographer Bennie van Staden concluded with Nel eliciting the information that when van Staden arrived on the crime scene, Pistorius was standing with his brother Karl in the garage. Van Staden subsequently accompanied Pistorius’s sister Aimee upstairs with a friend to fetch clothes for Oscar. They did not enter the bathroom.

Roux’s cross-examination has been angled thus far at the suggestion that van Staden took more photos of Pistorius at the crime scene than he has showed to the court. Pistorius has claimed to Roux that van Staden took a great number of photos of him at the scene, but van Staden has produced just nine, of which five are shots of Pistorius’s prosthetic legs.

We adjourned for a period to allow van Staden to produce the original photographs he took, before they were collated into the police album. Roux indicated that he wanted van Staden to also hand over the flash stick on which he saved these photos.

Other than this aspect, Roux devoted a fair bit of time to the process of testing Pistorius’s hands and arms for gunpowder residue – a “primary residue” (PR) test, as it’s known. Roux disputed that this test would have taken “seconds” for this test to administer, as van Staden claimed. Roux also asked to be provided with the PR kit used to do the test.

Roux will still be on the cross-examination when we’re back tomorrow morning. It seems likely that he’s still sniffing for evidence of police mishandling to support the defence’s wider case that multiple pieces of police evidence can be called into question. He also may be building up to the H-Bomb (that’s H for Hilton, as in Botha): trying to use evidence from the timing of police photos to make the case that Botha may have altered elements of the scene before they were photographed.

For Nel’s part, his lengthy questioning of van Staden as to the detail of the sequence and content of police photos is likely intended to establish the sense of meticulous and methodical police work.

Tomorrow, as Roux continues his cross-examination of van Staden, we’re probably in for a similarly dry time of it. A poll running on the News24 website today suggested that more than 60% of respondents had had enough of the Pistorius trial for the time being. Let’s see if story clicks and Channel 199-ratings match that.





Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius sits in the dock during court proceedings at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 14, 2014. Pistorius is on trial for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his suburban Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day last year. REUTERS/Phill Magakoe/Pool


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