Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Four, Day One

By Rebecca Davis 24 March 2014

In an alternate universe, the Pistorius trial might have wrapped up matters by Friday: the last day that the trial was initially scheduled to run for. But in the real world that we live in, we're now entering the fourth week. The state said they'd be wrapping up their case early this week. REBECCA DAVIS is there to hurry things along.

09.00 Good morning from the North Gauteng High Court, where we hope you spent your long weekend obsessing about Nkandla instead of thinking about the Pistorius trial, for a nice change. It’s slightly surreal to think that at the end of this week, we’ll have been sitting in this courtroom for a month. This weekend we received the news that the trial is now booked to run until May 16th.

Elections take place on May 7th, and another case will start competing for the public’s attention in April. It’s now confirmed that UK national Shrien Dewani, accused of hiring hitmen to kill his new bride Anni Hindocha in Cape Town in 2010, will be extradited to stand trial on April 7th. Dewani’s first court appearance will be the day that he arrives.

The Dewani trial won’t attract half as much international interest as the Pistorius trial, but there appears to be significant interest in Britain and South Africa. We’ll have to see how UK correspondents figure out how to juggle coverage of the Dewani case – which will be heard in Cape Town – with the ongoing Pistorius matter in Pretoria.

Back to the week at hand. We suspect that Pistorius may take the stand as early as this week, assuming that the state does conclude their case in the next few days, and, of course, that Pistorius does testify. The Times is also reporting that we might hear evidence relating to Pistorius’s iPhone records over the next few days.

Perhaps in response to all this prospective action, it looks like we’ll have some busy benches today. Reeva Steenkamp’s best friend Gina Myers is here with her mother and sister, as is Steenkamp’s mother June. Interestingly, former witness and Pistorius neighbour Johan Stipp is also here today, which suggests that one of the witnesses to come may be Stipp’s wife. We’ll let you know.

11.15 We’re on our first adjournment for today on Case Number CC 113/13. As we suspected was presaged by the appearance of Johan Stipp – the radiologist neighbour who arrived on the crime scene and attempted to resuscitate Steenkamp – the first witness called this week by the state has been Stipp’s wife Annette, who works as an occupational therapist doing “medico-legal” work.

Annette Stipp has been another confident and articulate witness thus far, who has been giving evidence as the sounds and sights that she observed on the morning of 14th February. Her testimony is that she woke herself up coughing, as she was a bit fluey, looked over at a clock radio and observed that it was 03.02. In the process of getting up to get something to drink, she heard three loud bangs. Her husband, woken by them, told her those were gunshots – which tallied with her own perception.

“Moments after” the shots, she heard a woman screaming, who sounded “terrified”. She could also see lights on in Pistorius’s house. Moving on to her balcony, she heard more screaming, which she said sounded like it was “coming closer”. Going back inside, she saw that it was 03.17 – though she noted that her clock was about three or four minutes fast. Just then, she heard what she described as three more shots.

Stipp testified that she heard screaming up till the second set of shots, and that she could also hear a man’s voice screaming before the second set of shots.

For some reason the defence’s cross-examination is being undertaken by Kenny Oldwadge today rather than Barry Roux. Oldwadge is focusing on casting doubts on the accuracy of Stipp’s perceptions, particularly with regards to timings, the sound of shots and screams, and the perception of lights coming from Pistorius’s house.

The sound of shots is particularly critical: we know that only 4 shots were fired by Pistorius, but Stipp claims to have heard 6, in two sets. When pressed, she said that perhaps she missed hearing one additional sound to the second set of shots – though this of course then doesn’t explain what the first set of shot-like sounds were.

Stipp has been adamant that she heard a woman screaming for an extended period, which is important because any screaming could have alerted Pistorius to Steenkamp’s whereabouts. “In my recollection, I am 100% absolutely convinced it was a woman,” Stipp said, and she testified that after the initial scream from a woman, she was sure she heard a man scream too: “there were two definite different pitches,” she said.

The issue of lights is also important. Pistorius’s claim is that it was too dark to see that Steenkamp was not in bed. Stipp is testifying, however, that she saw lights on in both Pistorius’s toilet and bathroom. Oldwadge is implying that her view from her bedroom, or balcony wasn’t necessarily accurate enough to pinpoint where lights were shining from.

13.00 The post-tea session has continued in much the same vein as previously, with Oldwadge trying to hammer the witness on sights and sounds, contradictions between her and her husband’s testimony and congruence between her and her husband’s testimony.

We’re seeing Judge Thokozile Masipa play a far more active role than she has previously, intervening at least three times to call for clarification from Oldwadge or defend the witness against some implication or suggestion of Oldwadge’s.

Oldwadge went to town on the fact that Annette Stipp initially testified – like her husband – that she had seen a male figure walking inside Pistorius’s house, but subsequently retracted it. Oldwadge used this as part of his wider claim that Stipp’s “recollection of events is not that good”: an idea rejected by Stipp.

Another piece of evidence Oldwadge advanced to bolster his theory was that Stipp testified that on the evening this year when the defence carried out sound tests of screams from Pistorius’s house, she had heard dogs barking. However, she could not recall whether she had heard dogs barking on the night when Steenkamp was shot. Masipa indicated, however, that the defence needed to make it clear whether it WAS, in fact, their case that dogs had been barking on the night in question, and Oldwadge dropped this line.

(Pistorius’s two dogs have been largely absent from the testimony thus far, though commentators suggest that Pistorius would reasonably have expected them to bark if an intruder was breaking into the property.)

Oldwadge also suggested that it was impossible for Annette Stipp to have seen a light on in Pistorius’s toilet, as she claimed, because Pistorius had told him that the toilet light was broken at the time. Oldwadge also said that Stipp’s own husband’s testimony indicated that he had not seen a light on in Pistorius’s toilet either – a discrepancy she was unable to account for. If it’s true that the toilet light was broken at the time, though, it means that on the defence’s account, Reeva Steenkamp must have chosen to visit the toilet, and lock the door, in total darkness.

Oldwadge also put it to the witness, as expected, that the second volley of ‘shots’ she had heard were the sounds of a cricket bat clobbering the door.

“I would struggle with the fact that the sounds were in such quick succession,” Stipp replied.

Despite the length and depth of the nitpicking, it’s not clear whether this has been a particularly successful cross-examination from Oldwadge, who has seemed to be clutching at straws at various points. But the state would seem to need to provide a plausible explanation for the six sounds, in two sets, heard by Stipp and her husband.

Oldwadge has indicated that he’s almost done with Stipp, so barring a lengthy re-examination by Nel, we could have another witness up this afternoon. If so, that will be one of the last three or four that the state still intends to call.

15.00 We’re over for the day in Pretoria, after some fairly dramatic concluding testimony from police Colonel Francois Moller as to the data retrieved from Pistorius’s iPhones.

Before that, we had to conclude with witness Annette Stipp. The defence’s Kenny Oldwadge put on another nice piece of theatre, with regards to photographs taken in Stipp’s bedroom which have been used to show that Stipp would have had a clear eye-line to Pistorius’s bathroom. Stipp testified that she was not present in her house when the photos were taken.

Oldwadge then asked if it would be possible to see Stipp’s watch. She duly took it off, and it was handled to the defence. Oldwadge proceeded to zoom in on a barely-visible hand in the bedroom photo, holding the curtain open. Once magnified, the hand was clearly wearing Stipp’s watch.

Stipp admitted that she must have been wrong, and that she must have been there when the photo was taken. She said, however, that she could not recall why she had been holding open the curtain, and blamed her confusion on the fact that two sets of pictures were taken on different occasions.

Oldwadge exploited this slip-up to once again cast doubts on Stipp’s powers of memory and perception .

When it came to Gerrie Nel’s turn for re-examination, he brought up a picture of Stipp’s house taken from the outside, in which there was a clear view of the bedroom’s bedside table and lamp. His point was that Oldwadge was mistaken to claim that Stipp must have had an obstructed view of Pistorius’s bathroom. Indeed, Stipp further testified that when forensic analysts carried out an investigation in Pistorius’s bathroom using UV lights, she and her husband had to close their curtains in order to avoid being bothered by the UV lights.

In terms of what you’ll read about in the papers tomorrow, however, the major action of the day came from police phone expert Francois Moller. Moller testified in detail that he had retrieved two iPhones and two Blackberrys from the crime scene, together with two iPads. The Blackberrys, however, were unused since late 2012: Pistorius had done a ‘sim-swap’ (changed his handset, but retained his phone number) between the two Blackberrys and the two iPhones.

Moller carried out a download of the data on Pistorius’s two numbers as well as Steenkamp’s number. He found there were over 10 pages of messages which had been exchanged between the two over the course of their barely three-month relationship, mostly over the messaging platform WhatsApp. Of these, Moller said, “certain messages” were found to be “applicable” to the case.

The first such message read to the court by Moller was clearly in reference to the incident at Tasha’s restaurant in January 2013, when Pistorius allegedly accidentally discharged a firearm in public and then asked his friend Darren Fresco to take the fall.

“Angel please don’t say a thing to anyone,” Pistorius texted to Steenkamp. “Darren told everyone it was his fault. I can’t afford for that to come out. The guys promised not to say a thing.”

Steenkamp obligingly replied: “I have no idea what you’re talking about J” and followed this up later with “But thank u for telling me, I appreciate it”.

(It’s worth remembering here that Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to the reckless discharging of a firearm at Tasha’s. It’s increasingly difficult to see what the defence’s case is going to be when it comes to this charge.)

A message exchange between Steenkamp and Pistorius from 19th January, just over three weeks before her death, casts some light on a relationship with clear ups and downs. In this instance, it appeared the two had fought over Steenkamp smoking marijuana while a contestant on reality show Tropika Island of Treasure.  Steenkamp defended herself by saying she had “never been a prude and I’ve had fun, but all innocent and without harmful repercussions”.

A fight a few days later was after Pistorius insisted on the couple leaving one of Steenkamps’ friends’ engagement parties early, because Pistorius seems to have flown into a rage and accused Steenkamp of flirting with a friend’s husband. “You’ve picked on me incessantly,” Steenkamp wrote. “I wasn’t flirting with anyone today. I feel sick that you suggested it.”

Pistorius, for his part, apologized for “taking offence at some of your actions”. He explained that he was tired and sick, but reiterated his anger when Steenkamp had left him at lunch to talk to another man and touched his arm.

Another message related to yet another public fight at a function. “I like to believe that I make you proud when I attend these kinds of functions with you,” Steenkamp began. It’s hard to tell what the source of Pistorius’s anger was in this case, but it may have been that she made her way to the exit without him. “I didn’t think you would criticize me for doing that, especially not so loudly so others would hear,” Steenkamp wrote. “I regard myself as a lady but I didn’t feel like one tonight.”

The defence will doubtless come back to one particular message from Steenkamp, in which she wrote: “I am scared of you sometimes, how you snap at me and react to me”.

The picture of Pistorius’s character relationships that emerged through the messages was that of a highly jealous, controlling partner with a quick temper, unafraid to pick fights in public or criticize Steenkamp for aspects ranging from her accent to her gum-chewing. She comes across as a woman unafraid to stand up for herself, but also as earnestly seeking his approval and his love. It was hard to hear Moller read out their exchanges.

We’re finally seeing more of the state’s case now. In his closing argument, Gerrie Nel will presumably draw on these messages to summon the image of a jealous, angry young man, prone to sudden rages. But he’ll have to convince Judge Masipa and her assessors, beyond a “reasonable doubt”, that this jealous, angry young man shot through a door knowing that his girlfriend was beyond it. DM

Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius arrives in court as Reeva Steenkamp’s mother June (2nd L) looks on in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, March 17, 2014. REUTERS/Daniel Born


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