Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week 4, Day 2

By Rebecca Davis 25 March 2014

Day 15 of the Pistorius trial, where we ended yesterday with the testimony of police Colonel Francois Moller as to the content of text messages swapped between Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius - some of which painted the picture of a not-always-rosy relationship. By REBECCA DAVIS.

09.00 When we come back this morning, we’ll see the state’s Gerrie Nel continue to lead evidence from police phone expert Francois Moller. Yesterday Moller read the court a number of messages exchanged between the two which were considered “relevant” to the case – in other words, casting doubt on the defence’s claim that all was hunky-dory in the Pistorius-Steenkamp relationship – though he also stated that 90% of the messages were normal and loving. Perhaps the defence will produce a number of those loving and normal messages today to reinforce their case.

Journalists are reporting that soccer player Mark Batchelor has been spotted outside the courthouse, raising the possibility that Batchelor may be one of the state’s final witnesses. Batchelor got into a fight with Pistorius in 2012, during the course of which Pistorius allegedly threatened to break the soccer player’s legs. It’s worth noting, however, that Batchelor has his own history of involvement with brawls which might seem to make him a risky prospect on the witness stand. Let’s see.

11.00 We kicked things off this morning with the state focusing on leading detailed evidence from Francois Moller from the billing records of Steenkamp and Pistorius’s phones.

Three downloads were done on Pistorius’s phones, one of which was undertaken at Apple headquarters in the US. Moller, led by Nel, was at pains to take the court through a detailed account of the procedure followed to extract data from the phones, and to pre-empt any suggestion from the defence that the data could have been tampered with.

The data seems to show that Reeva Steenkamp’s phone was last used around 9pm the night before the shooting, which seems to put the boot into any of the theories that Steenkamp received a late-night call or text which sent Pistorius into a spiralling rage.

Pistorius’s phone did, however, connect to the internet at 01.48 – before the shooting – for 309 seconds. Under cross-examination, though, Moller conceded that this could be because an app was left open, was automatically updating, emails were coming through, or a similar reason.

Pistorius’s phone records showed that the first call he made after the shooting of Steenkamp was at 03.19 to estate manager Johan Stander. He followed this up almost immediately with a call to an ambulance service. At roughly 03.21, Moller testified that Pistorius placed a call to estate security, who subsequently phoned him back.

This – a point returned to under cross-examination by Roux – contradicts the testimony given previously by estate security guard Pieter Baba, who claimed that he had phoned Pistorius first.

Pistorius then made two further calls, to his best friend Justin Divaris and his brother Carl.

Roux’s cross-examination began with the technical aspects of automatic internet updates and the matter of the call to estate security, but moved quickly back to the content of messages swapped between Pistorius and Steenkamp that we were looking at yesterday.

Moller proved himself an obliging witness, happy to make concessions to Roux when prodded. He admitted, for instance, that he had been able to find just four messages pertaining to an argument in the over 1700 between them.

Roux also returned to the message sent by Pistorius to Steenkamp following the Tasha’s shooting accident, which read “Darren told everyone it was his fault”. Moller conceded that it did not say that Pistorius had asked Darren to take the blame for the incident.

Roux also asked Moller to read aloud messages speaking to the love and warmth of the couple’s relationship. Pistorius had given Steenkamp a gift; she posed wearing it, in a photo blowing him a kiss. Their arguments, Roux suggested – drawing on textual evidence – were quickly and easily resolved.

Roux is never one to let a witness go to waste if he or she could back up a separate element of the defence’s case, and so it proved here too. He asked Moller to read two messages from Pistorius pertaining to going to see a physiotherapist, and to his shoulder being “stuffed”, and indicated that he would be returning to this later as evidence that Pistorius was sleeping on the opposite side of the bed to normal due to a shoulder injury.

When we adjourned, Roux was entering into evidence Steenkamp’s web browsing history, cookies, WhatsApps and emails, apparently to prove that Steenkamp and Pistorius shared a love of cars. He may be trying to suggest that police cannot say with any certainty, as a result, who of the two was using Pistorius’s iPad to browse the internet on the evening before the shooting.

(Mark Batchelor, by the way, is clearly NOT testifying, as he’s taken up a seat on the public benches next to Steenkamp’s best friend Gina Myers. Myers told journalists earlier that the reason she was only able to start attending the trial so late in the day was because she wasn’t sure up till now if the state would call her as a witness – which precludes you from attending before your testimony. The same would apply to Batchelor.)

13.00 Lunch, after a fairly surreal session of further WhatsApp live-readings.

Roux took matters up again by demonstrating, based on various communications and social media postings, that Steenkamp had a keen interest in cars. We speculated earlier that his end point might be that it was Steenkamp rather than Pistorius who had been doing the browsing on Pistorius’s iPad the evening before the shooting, but Roux didn’t make any such point. He may simply have been seeking to impress upon the court that the couple were well-suited because they had similar interests.

The next seeming eternity was taken up with Roux asking Moller to read him various communiques between the two, again aimed at painting the picture of a warm and loving relationship. The spectacle of the burly Moller reading out the love notes was a little surreal, to say the least. “Kiss kiss,” Roux would prompt, if Moller missed articulating a solitary ‘x’ at the end of a message. The two called each other ‘Boo’, ‘Baba’, ‘Noo’, ‘Babooooo’, and similar terms of endearment.

The effect was indeed that of an affectionate pair. Pistorius would frequently message her and tell her to let him know that she’d returned home safely. Contrasting with yesterday’s impression of a jealous, controlling partner, Moller read out one message where Pistorius encouraged Steenkamp to see an ex-boyfriend (Warren Lahoud) rather than hang out with him.

But of course, all of this is ultimately inconclusive. The fact that their rapport was at times very wam and loving does not preclude it from having been dark and damaging in other ways – and vice versa. When Gerrie Nel took up the re-examination of Moller, he sought to make the case that although there had been MORE loving texts than fighting texts, the fighting texts were longer in length. This seems, frankly, silly – though perhaps the judge will disagree.

The state’s next witness was a Warrant Officer Maritz from the local Boschkop police station. In a very short stint on the stand, Maritz gave evidence as to the relative safety of Pistorius’s Silverwoods estate: 8 crimes between 2011 and 2013, of which just one was a house robbery and just one a shooting – Steenkamp’s. The state will doubtless return to this in closing arguments to argue that it was unreasonable for Pistorius to feel himself so desperately under threat in such an environment.

In cross-examination, Roux made the point that Maritz’s crime database only includes those crimes reported to the police, which Maritz conceded. Roux also suggested that Pistorius had been a victim of crime on countless occasions. With sarcasm, Nel responded in re-examination that there should presumably be some evidence of these crimes on the police database. Maritz agreed that unless Pistorius’s name or ID number had been entered into the system wrongly, this should indeed be the case.

We’ll be having another witness coming up after lunch, and it looks like it might be state forensic analyst Johannes Vermeulen back on the stand.

15.00 The post-lunch session did indeed see the return of Vermeulen, who you might recall was the expert who testified as to the most likely angle at which the cricket bat hit Pistorius’s toilet door. Nel explained, however, that Vermeulen had been called back by the defence rather than the state, as Barry Roux wanted to cross-examine him on one further aspect about the door.

It emerged that Vermeulen had been called back to the courthouse last week to examine a high mark on the toilet door which the defence insists could have been caused by a cricket bat – supporting their case that Pistorius struck the door while wearing his prosthetics – which the state dismissed. Vermeulen continued to insist that even upon re-examination, the only marks he could “relate” to the cricket bat were ones he had already identified.

Roux asked Vermeulen if he had tried to fit his cricket bat to all marks. Vermeulen said no; if he didn’t think the mark was caused by a cricket bat, he didn’t do any physical matching. Roux then brought out photographs taken by the police’s van Staden showing Vermeulen matching the bat to the top door mark after all. Vermeulen said that he had forgotten doing this, but maintained that the bat would not fit the marks anyway.

Roux concluded again by accusing Vermeulen – essentially – of being so blinded by pre-judgment that he dismissed out of hand any theories or evidence which did not fit the state’s case. Vermeulen denied this. In re-examination, Nel elicited the information from Vermeulen that a hit to the top mark on the door would not have held sufficient power to break the door.

And with that, the state’s case rested.

Up for the defence, Roux explained that there were a number of witnesses on the state’s list who had not been called to the stand in the end who the defence now wished to consult with before beginning their case. Judge Masipa agreed that this was fair, and agreed to an adjournment till Friday morning.

We’ll have a full analysis of the evidence presented by the state up for you this evening. DM

Photo by Reuters.

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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