Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Five, Day Three

By Rebecca Davis 9 April 2014

With Oscar Pistorius still on the stand, we're braced for another gruelling day of testimony in the North Gauteng High Court. Matters concluded half an hour early yesterday, after Pistorius's uncontrollable wailing caused the defence's Barry Roux to request that the court called it a day. We had only just reached the part in the athlete's account when he realised that he'd shot Reeva Steenkamp, so cross-examination by Gerrie Nel may still be a way off. By REBECCA DAVIS

09.00 Gerrie Nel grilled former South African top cop Jackie Selebi for eight days when Selebi came to give testimony in his own defence. It was, admittedly, a very different sort of case. But if Nel has similar plans in store for Oscar Pistorius, it may be a while before Pistorius gets off the stand.

But that’s premature. Nel has yet to get anywhere near Pistorius, who is still being led in evidence by his lawyer Barry Roux. Today will be Pistorius’s third day on the stand, after a display yesterday which saw the athlete break down completely. It was an emotional exhibition which will have won him the sympathy of many, though it’s literally impossible to read anything as to Pistorius’s guilt or innocence into it.

Packed benches in court today, with spectators including Pistorius’s friend-turned-foe Darren Fresco. Yet again, space constraints have forced the Pistorius and Steenkamp contingents to sit shoulder to shoulder. Will we get through a full day’s court proceedings today, or will Pistorius’s tears put a premature stop to things again?

11.00 Things are progressing a lot more quickly and smoothly today, with Pistorius apparently in firmer control of his emotions. The story he gave of the events immediately after discovering Reeva Steenkamp dead in his toilet remained in some respects sketchy on details and sequence of events, however. Pistorius will likely say that the trauma of the occasion clouded his memory, but expect Nel to be unforgiving in drilling down into the details.

Pistorius said that upon finding Steenkamp in the bathroom he heard her breathing, and attempted to pick her up but had difficulties. Seeing that she had brought her cellphone to the bathroom – a reason why has not yet been advanced by either state or prosecution – he tried to use it to call for help, but didn’t know her passcode. Pistorius thus ran back into his bedroom to fetch his own phone, from which he called estate manager Johan Stander, and subsequently security too.

Pistorius ran downstairs to open the front door because he knew he would struggle while carrying Steenkamp. He brought her down, and Johan Stander and daughter Clarice arrived. Stander said to put Steenkamp down because the ambulance was en route. Pistorius did so, sitting with his fingers in Steenkamp’s mouth to help her breathe and his hand on her hip to try to stem her bleeding.

Clarice Stander suggested that they fetch rope or tape to try to make a tourniquet for Steenkamp’s arm. Pistorius could not remember if it was he or Stander who went to a utility cupboard in his pantry to fetch tape and bags. He could not remember whether the bags were used (though Johan Stipp testified earlier that they were).

A person who Pistorius later understood to be Johan Stipp then arrived. Pistorius claimed to still not remember what his face looks like, though presumably watching him give evidence for two days should have jogged his memory. Pistorius testified that it seemed like Stipp did not know what he was doing, although Stipp told the court of his assessment and resuscitation attempts on Steenkamp. He said that Stipp walked out of house despite Pistorius’s shouts to him to come back, though Stipp’s version was that Pistorius went upstairs.

Paramedics arrived, and Pistorius moved a few metres off to give them the space to work. A parademic then came to Pistorius and informed him that Steenkamp had passed away. Some form of identification was necessary, so Pistorius went upstairs to fetch Steenkamp’s handbag, which he gave to the paramedics. Shortly after this two police officers arrived in casual clothes, and “more or less at the same time” Colonel van Rensburg.

“Every time I looked up there were more people in the house, more policemen,” Pistorius testified.

He asked permission to wash his hands because the blood was making him throw up. Every time he saw Steenkamp he felt sick, Pistorius said. Colonel van Rensburg informed him that he didn’t have to talk to anyone but he would have to go to the garage to have his picture taken by the police photographer. Pistorius did so. He stayed in the garage for some hours, before being taken to the “foyer” area of his house, where van Rensburg explained that he was under arrest. From there, he was taken to a hospital in Mamelodi for various tests.

Pistorius at no point phoned a lawyer, he confirmed under questioning from Roux.

Roux was keen to get on to the issue of how Pistorius wielded his cricket bat to bash down the door. The state claims he was on his stumps, the defence says he was wearing his prosthetics. “I can barely stand on my stumps”, Pistorius said – although note that, on his own version, Pistorius carried his fans indoors from the balcony on stumps, locked the door and so on.

According to the timeline of the evening, the bangs heard by neighbours would have been the sounds of the cricket bat, Pistorius testified. He estimated that the amount of time intervening between him firing the four shots and breaking down the door was around five minutes.

Roux asked Pistorius to demonstrate two things to the court. First, he asked Pistorius to show how high he could lift his prosthesis in a kicking motion towards the door. Pistorius kicked just above the door handle. Then Pistorius demonstrated how he used the cricket bat. “I hit the door with all my might,” he told the court. He dismissed the state’s assertion that for him to have hit the door at the relevant angle while wearing prosthetics would have been an “unnatural” stance.

“When you’re breaking down a door it’s not a natural stance,” Pistorius said.

Roux then got on to two aspects which may be critical to the defence’s case. He cited the witnesses who live closest to Pistorius, who were not called by the state. These neighbours, he said, did NOT hear the sounds of a woman screaming; only of crying. Roux led Pistorius to confirm that he was not closely acquainted with these neighbours, with the implication that they would have no reason to lie to protect him.

The second aspect tackled by Roux was the Stipps’ testimony that they saw a man walk across Pistorius’s bathroom. Pistorius said that, given the angle of the bedroom window, the only way it would have been possible for them to see him would have been if he was wearing his prosthetic legs. Otherwise, only his head and perhaps a bit of his shoulder would have protruded above the window ledge.

Did Pistorius intend to kill Reeva Steenkamp? asked Roux in conclusion.

“I did not intend to kill Reeva nor anybody else,” Pistorius replied.

13.00 In some ways Barry Roux’s questioning seemed to end rather abruptly. Roux will, of course, have the chance to re-examine Pistorius, and he may have wished to limit his client’s time on the stand both for the sake of Pistorius’s emotional energy and to reduce the scope of potential material for Gerrie Nel to tear apart. Nonetheless, when Pistorius was turned over to Nel, few people, surely, will have had the sense that Roux had dotted every conceivable ‘i’ and crossed every possible ‘t’.

Nel came out like a raging bull, an entirely different character from the mild prosecutor leading his witnesses in evidence over the past few weeks.

“You are one the most recognised faces in the world, agreed?” he began by asking Pistorius. “You are a model for sportsmen?”

“I was, but I made a terrible mistake,” Pistorius said, in different forms, several times. Nel took offence at the word ‘mistake’.

“You killed a person, you killed Reeva Steenkamp,” Nel said, almost yelling. “Say it. Say: ‘I shot and killed her’!”

The Pistorius who Roux led in questioning was clearly well-prepared and well-rehearsed. By immediately going on hard on him, Nel was probably looking to shake him up, to rattle him in the hope of inducing an error.

Remember that in South African criminal trials the prosecution is not allowed to introduce character evidence. But if the defence leads character evidence, the prosecution may attempt to dispute it. It was clear this was the direction Nel was going when he bowled Pistorius: “You try to live on Christian principles?”

It emerged that what Nel wanted to do was show the court the video unearthed by Sky News (or offered and bought and paid for, as a Twitter cynic corrected) of Pistorius and his mates at a shooting range. The defence objected to the introduction of evidence that did not technically form part of the state’s case. After a series of adjournments for Judge Masipa to consider the matter, and for the lawyers to negotiate, Roux agreed to the video being screened on the grounds that this did not set a precedent for the rest of the trial.

And so, for the second time this trial, a Sky News video was beamed to the court. (The first occasion, you may recall, was when the defence showed Sky’s CCTV footage of Pistorius and Steenkap canoodling in a grocery store.)

The video, which will already be familiar to many, pictures Pistorius next to rugby player Francois Hougaard, firing his pistol at a watermelon, which explodes. Raucous laughter is then heard, while Pistorius says: “It’s a lot softer than brain, but fuck it’s like a zombie stopper.”

Before the video had been shown, Pistorius had told the court that he had no idea what a “zombie stopper” was. After the screening, he conceded that it was indeed him on camera, saying it made him “upset” to hear the words he was speaking in the video.

Nel wasn’t done. The way the bullet exploded the watermelon, he said, was “exactly what you did to Reeva’s head”. Then he flashed a photo on the court screen, apparently also seen by TV viewers at home: a close-up of Reeva’s bloodied head and its wounds.

“Look at it!” Nel yelled, as Pistorius refused to turn his head to see the picture. “Look at it! Take responsibility for what you did! I know you don’t want to see this, but look at it!”

A weeping Pistorius replied that he had taken responsibility. “I held her head,” he said. “I don’t need to look at the picture!”

And with that Nel suggested an adjournment to allow Pistorius to compose himself.

When we resumed, bad cop was gone and a softer version briefly in his place. Nel has been suggesting that Pistorius’s version of events on the night of the shooting has been affected by media reports and other witness testimony. Pistorius has conceded that it is “a mixture of memory and a reconstruction”, because there were some aspects he could not possibly have been privy to – the phonecalls of other witnesses to security, for instance.

Nel is also intent on pointing out discrepancies between Pistorius’s bail affidavit and subsequent testimony. The bail affidavit makes reference to Pistorius waking up and going “on to the balcony” to fetch a fan. Pistorius now denies being on the balcony. Pistorius explained this apparent discrepancy by saying that the fan was positioned partly on the balcony, and partly inside.

His bail affidavit also makes reference to only one fan, whereas Pistorius now says there were two fans. This he explains because a smaller fan was positioned between the tripod legs of the larger fan.

Nel hammered home the fact that Pistorius’s affidavit says that he went on to the balcony. Pistorius conceded that he did not technically go on to the balcony.

These details may seem inconsequential, but they are of use to Nel in building up a picture of Pistorius’s affidavit as potentially inaccurate – or dishonest – and Pistorius’s recollections as flawed. We’ll probably be in for much more of this nitty-gritty when we resume after lunch.

15h00. End of the day at the Pistorius trial, where – for once – we didn’t adjourn early. (Though we did have a few extra small adjournments this morning.)

The post-lunch period didn’t bring the same scale of Nel theatrics as previously. He continued to grill Pistorius on why previous versions of events – including Roux’s questioning of policeman Hilton Botha during the bail hearing – had included the detail that Pistorius had gone on to his balcony. Pistorius could only say that a mistake must have been made when his bail affidavit was being written.

Nel wanted to dwell on Pistorius’s plea explanation, which says among other things that the crime scene was contaminated and evidence tampered with. Nel asked if this was why Pistorius was pleading not guilty. Pistorius said no; he was pleading not guilty because what he was accused of did not happen. But he agreed that his version was still that the crime scene had indeed been tampered with.

Nel wanted specific examples of things that had been tampered with. Pistorius suggested, among other things, that his firearm, cricket bat and Reeva’s cellphone had been moved. He said that he and his counsel had been through every single photo, tracking times and changes. Who would testify about this tampering? Nel asked. Pistorius replied that other experts would as the case proceeded.

Nel brought up a photo of the side of Pistorius’s bed, and zoomed in on a hair clipper. Pistorius said that he plugged it into the same extension cord as the fans. This emerged to be of significance, because the appeared to show that there was only room to plug in one, not two, of the fans that Pistorius said were running when he woke up and moved them. Pistorius said, in the face of persistent questioning, that he could not remember where the fans were plugged in.

“My memory isn’t very good at the moment. I’m under a lot of pressure. I’m fighting for my life,” Pistorius said quaveringly. He said that police could have moved a fan, or that he might have tripped over a cord and unplugged one while running.

We concluded the day by addressing the shooting itself. Pistorius called the shooting “accidental”, saying that he had never intended to shoot either Steenkamp or an intruder.

“You never fired your gun at intruders with intention to kill them?” Nel asked. Pistorius reiterated that he didn’t mean to shoot anyone, that he wanted to put himself between danger and Steenkamp, and that he “didn’t have time to think”.

Nel continued to press at Pistorius’s claim that he did not intend to shoot anyone. Defending his version again, Pistorius said: “My life is on the line”. “Reeva doesn’t have a life any more,” Nel replied.

Pistorius said that he fired “by accident”, that his finger was on the trigger and he believed someone was coming out to attack him. “You never purposefully fired shots into the door?” Nel asked. “No,” Pistorius replied.

Nel then read to Pistorius from his bail affidavit, which implies much more of a sense of intention about the shooting. “I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself….I fired shots at the toilet door,” it says.

“i’m not denying I shot at the door,” Pistorius replied.

And there we left it.

Having seen the level of detail at which Gerrie Nel may proceed, Jackie Selebi’s eight days on the stand no longer seems such a stretch.

The memory of today’s proceedings which many of us will struggle to erase is the picture of Steenkamp’s bloodied head being flashed across the court screens, while Nel yelled at Pistorius to look at the results of his deeds. To be on the witness stand during cross examination, Pistorius must be realising, is one of the loneliest places on earth. Then again, it probably beats a prison cell. DM

Photo by Reuters.

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