Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Two, Day Three

By Rebecca Davis 19 March 2014

It's the thirteenth day of the Pistorius trial, but despite that inauspicious number, it may be a lucky one for any witnesses nervous of the heat of media attention. Whatever the state's ballistics expert produces today, the really explosive news of the day will be taking place just a few kilometres down the road from the North Gauteng High Court, when Thuli Masonsela releases her report on Nkandla. Who had a more uneasy night's sleep: ANC strategists, or Barry Roux's next victim? REBECCA DAVIS waits to see.

09.00 It’s Wednesday in the all-too familiar Courtroom GD, or as we like to call it, ‘home’. We expect that in South Africa at least, public attention will be diverted firmly from this court from midday onwards, to attend to the Public Protector’s report. We’ll be doing our bit to stay focused.

Matters will be resuming here with the evidence of Captain Christian Mangena, the state’s ballistics expert, who concluded yesterday by giving us Pistorius’s measurements on his prosthetics and without. We’ll be hearing more today about the angle and direction from which the state thought Pistorius’s fired.

11.00 An interesting pre-tea session at the Pistorius trial, where state ballistic expert Christian Mangena established himself as a bit of a folk hero for the anti-Pistorius (or anti-Roux) lobby by appearing almost entirely impervious to Barry Roux’s attacks. Mangena, unlike other witnesses, didn’t play the game. He didn’t listen to dutifully to Barry Roux’s suggestion of events and then doubtfully concede its possibility. In fact, his response to Roux’s alternate scenarios was one of perplexed derision. “I disagree,” was Mangena’s perpetual refrain.

But before Roux got his go, Nel led Mangena in evidence. He testified that based on his analysis of the shots fired, Steenkamp had been standing facing the toilet door when the first shot was fired. Upon being shot in the hip, she fell into a semi-seated position on a magazine rack, crossed her hands above her head to protect herself, was shot in the head, and slumped next to the toilet.

Mangena also testified that Pistorius fired the shots from a distance of at a minimum 60cm, and at a maximum around 3 metres. He said that the state had carried out tests using the Black Talon ammunition that Pistorius favoured, and they believed that the reason Steenkamp had bruising on her back was due to ‘Bullet B’ missing Steenkamp, hitting the wall and sending fragments ricocheting.

The other bullets would not have gone on to ricochet elsewhere because of the nature of the bullets, which open up when they hit a “moist target” and don’t generally travel further.

Mangena testified that the angle of likely bullet shots, tested via lasers, suggested that Pistorius had not been wearing his prosthetics when he fired. Echoing the language of state forensic analyst Vermeulen last week, he said that it was possible that Pistorius was on his prosthetics, but it was an “awkward position”.

Roux kicked things off by asking Mangena if he was familiar with the term “double-tap”, which describes a pair of shots in very rapid succession caused by pulling the gun’s trigger extremely fast. Roux indicated that it will be the defence’s case that Pistorius fired two double-taps, causing four rapid sounds.

“I disagree,” Mangena replied. He said that if the double-taps were the case, you would expect to find the wounds on Steenkamp’s body far closer together. Roux pointed out, however, that the notion of four rapid shots matched the account of radiologist Johan Stipp as to the sounds he had heard on the evening. Mangena reiterated his disbelief, stating his conviction that there must have been a short break between, in particular, the first and second shots. (During re-examination, Gerrie Nel put it to Mangena that this more closely matched witness Michelle Burger’s memory of sounds: “Bang. Bang bang bang.”)

The defence is also keen to make the case that it was the right side of Steenkamp’s body angled towards the toilet door – presumably because it allows them to suggest that she was leaving the loo when Pistorius started shooting, rather than having been sheltering there beforehand.

Roux’s other major point was to question why the state had claimed, at the bail hearing, that Pistorius had fired while standing 1,5 m from the door, and wearing his prosthetics – a version of events which has now changed. Was it simply to allow the state to make the claim of premeditated murder? he asked. Mangena said that he didn’t know.

Roux also attempted to shoe-horn in the theory that cricket-bats sound like gunshots, but Mangena said he wasn’t a sound expert.

It’s fair to say that the defence did not manage to make much headway in cutting down Mangena’s reconstruction: for once, it appeared that Barry Roux had met his match. But we know that the defence has employed their own expensive ballistics experts, who will presumably be called in due course to testify in a manner supporting Pistorius’s version of events. Then it’s up to Judge Masipa to figure out which of the experts have a more credible story to tell.

13.00 It would normally be lunch at the Pistorius trial, but we’ve been released – till Monday. More on that in a second.

Since tea we’ve dealt with two further witnesses in unusually quick succession. First on the blocks was Colonel Ian van der Nest, the state’s blood-spatter expert of 20 years’ standing. Van der Nest testified that he had attended the crime scene on the same day that the post-mortem was carried out – 15th February – where he was asked to give his opinion on whether blunt-force trauma could have been responsible for Steenkamp’s death.

Van der Nest’s conclusion was that the blood trail leading from the toilet to the lounge was consistent with the rather gruesome phrase “arterial spurt” – ie, blood gushing from arteries rather than blunt trauma. (In other words, what caused Steenkamp’s death was gunshots rather than, say, being bludgeoned with a cricket bat, as some early media stories hinted at.)  Evidence of bits of broken hair and tissue in the toilet, with blood, suggested that Steenkamp’s head wound was sustained around the toilet, while the quantity of blood pooled around the toilet’s base suggested it stemmed from the shot to her arm.

Van der Nest also testified that the blood trail leading out of the bathroom was consistent with Steenkamp having been lifted up and carried downstairs, as Pistorius’s version holds. Under cross-examination from Roux, van der Nest was asked to read a paragraph from Pistorius’s statement, which he said was consistent with his findings. However, Nel had also asked van der Nest if he supported Mangena’s reconstruction of events, and van der Nest agreed.

The next witness called by the state was Colonel Mike Sales, who’s the police’s phone and computer expert. Anyone hoping to hear anything about records retrieved from the two iPhones found in Pistorius’s room would have been disappointed, however, because the phones never got a mention. Instead, his evidence focused on one of two iPads found at the scene, handed to him by our old friend Hilton Botha.

Sales downloaded the browsing history and bookmarks from the iPad, though he noted that the browsing history prior to 13th February appeared to have been deleted.

The iPad records revealed that the last browsing on the device was done at 9.19pm on the evening of 13th February, which is consistent with Pistorius’s story that he and Steenkamp were in bed by 10pm. The browsing records showed that Pistorius looked at a number of expensive car websites. No mention was made as to the detail of the data retrieved from the second iPad, but Sales testified as to the “commonalities” between the browsing on both.

While we took a short adjournment before Roux’s cross-examination, the court screens continued to display the record of Pistorius’s web history. Journalists being nosy beasts, many of us crowded around them to get a closer look – as may well have been the state’s intention. One of the aspects not raised by the state’s evidence-leading was that at 18.30, shortly after Steenkamp would have arrived at the estate, Pistorius had accessed a porn site.

It had been suggested by media beforehand that the state would attempt to make something of this detail – casting aspersions on the quality of Pistorius’s relationship with Steenkamp if he was browsing porn while she was in his house on the night before Valentine’s Day. (Yes, we see the holes in this notion too.) The state didn’t make anything of it in the end; but, as mentioned, they didn’t seem to mind its rather prominent exposure to journalists. Any adverse conclusions drawn from Pistorius’s porn habit can only be from a PR perspective, however; legally, it’s meaningless.

In a very short cross-examination, pretty much the only point Roux sought to make was that the witness could not say with certainty who was accessing the iPads at any particular time. Sales agreed. But then again, Roux didn’t really have anything to knock down by the state. Calling Sales as a witness was almost a bit perplexing – but remember that he has now entered the iPad data as evidence into the court record, so Nel may be planning to come back to it later.

Nel then asked Judge Masipa if the court could adjourn till Monday. He said – perhaps surprisingly – that the state only wished to call four or five more witnesses, and that they anticipated wrapping up their case early next week. Roux assented to this, but was careful to say he was doing so only on the understanding that the state was close to concluding their case.

If the defence has to begin calling witnesses close to the beginning of next week, one intriguing consideration is that Pistorius will likely have to testify for them first (in order to prevent him tailoring his evidence to what he hears from the defence’s other witnesses). So we may be hearing from Pistorius on the stand earlier than anticipated.

By far the most powerful testimony of the day came from ballistics expert Mangena, in his refusal to countenance Roux’s alternative scenarios. Mangena’s claim is that Pistorius’s first bullet struck Steenkamp in her hip, from a standing position, causing her to slump downwards, and that the shot to her head came only subsequently. This would appear to bolster the likelihood of Steenkamp having cried out after the first bullet, potentially alerting Pistorius to her whereabouts in the toilet.

After this third short week, then, how is the state’s case looking? In some senses: strong. Firearms instructor Sean Rens’s testimony on Monday that Pistorius was fully au fait with what constituted unlawful shootings appeared quite damaging, as did today’s ballistics evidence from Mangena. The defence this week has been focused on sowing doubt on the police’s crime scene handling, though there have been few further shocking revelations in this regard.

What does Gerrie Nel have left up his sleeve? We’re wondering if there’s anything truly explosive waiting to be heard. One notable omission from his witness list thus far, however, has been the neighbours who lived directly adjacent to Pistorius. Could it be that he’s saving one or two of them for a final flourish next week? DM.


Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius is photographed as he leaves at the end of his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.



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