Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Five, Day Five

By Rebecca Davis 11 April 2014

It's the last day of a long week in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, and it's likely that nobody is more glad of the imminent weekend reprieve than Pistorius himself. For the third day in a row, Pistorius will take the stand to face the state's Gerrie Nel - who doesn't seem to be anywhere close to done with him. REBECCA DAVIS is on hand.

09.00 Fridays at the North Gauteng High Court generally bring a slightly cheerier mood than other days, as they do elsewhere – except for the journalists for Sunday newspapers, of course. But the public gallery will have to keep a lid on things, since yesterday Judge Masipa told everyone off sternly for seeming to treat proceedings “as entertainment”.

When we left off yesterday, Nel was grilling Pistorius about the position of the fans in his bedroom, suggesting that the position of the fan in the police photo of the bedroom meant that it could not have been plugged in – and that Pistorius was lying about getting up to move the fans.

Meanwhile, there’s evidence elsewhere that Pistorius may be losing the PR battle, whatever the court outcome. “What A Loser”, ran an op-ed in the UK Sun this morning. “Is it just me – or is Oscar Pistorius one of the most irritating men on the planet?” The column concluded: “For goodness sake Oscar, get a grip. It is the mother of the woman you shot who has our sympathy. Not you.”

Ouch…

11.00 It’s our tea adjournment at the North Gauteng High Court, and it feels like we’ve been here for a while already. Perhaps that’s because Nel’s cross-examination has been wide-ranging this morning, skipping back and forth through space and time.

Nel started off by making a point which (ahem) we made too in our analysis piece last night: that Pistorius’s references to Steenkamp’s Christian character included only the mention of how Steenkamp prayed for Pistorius, rather than any reciprocation. Nel read from Pistorius’s evidence: “she would pray about my training, pray about all the small things I had in my life”. Nel’s point, again, was simply that it was all about Oscar.

From here, Nel moved on to the issue of Pistorius’s security history. He wanted to know why Pistorius had never reported any of the crimes he mentioned in his evidence to the police. Pistorius replied that he didn’t think there was any point, because he didn’t trust the police to do anything useful. (This is, in fairness, pretty much exactly what witnesses at the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry reported last month.) Pistorius acknowledged that he had never been the victim of crime at Silverwoods estate – “other than police stealing my watches”. Boom.

Nel drew attention nonetheless to the apparent discrepancy between Pistorius’s security paranoia and his willingness to leave his cars outside; not fix a broken window; and not have burglar proofing on his windows.

Pistorius was also quizzed about his alarm system, which operated both inside and outside his house. Pistorius said that there were alarm sensors outside his house which it would have been possible for contractors to remove while they were painting his house. He said the same thing had happened during his 2010 renovation. Nel expressed mystification as to why Pistorius hadn’t checked whether his external alarm sensors were actually working. Pistorius conceded that he was not aware for certain of any alarm malfunction at the time of the shooting.

Nel turned to the alarm system within the house, asking at what point in the night of the shooting Pistorius had deactivated the alarm. Pistorius said he had done it just before he left his bedroom to open the front door to carry Steenkamp downstairs, but under questioning changed this to that he “must have” done it. He said he did not remember consciously doing it, but that it was force of habit. The only reason he knew for certain that he must have done it, he said, was that the alarm did not go off when he went downstairs.

“You must have been concerned that intruders got in without triggering the alarm?” Nel asked. Pistorius said that he didn’t have time to think about it, but he confirmed that if the external sensors were working as they should have been, people would not have been able to enter the house without the alarm going off.

We moved to an incident Pistorius had described as part of his testimony that he had previously felt his life to be in danger. Pistorius told the court again that he had been driving on the highway at around 11pm during 2008 or 2009 when a black Merc had started behaving threateningly, following him and – he claims – shooting at him: Pistorius said he could hear a bang and see a muzzle flash. To avoid the car, Pistorius swerved on to a particular turnoff, drove under the highway, and parked in an area with a few restaurants and a lot of people around. He denied that he and the car had been involved in any kind of road rage incident before, and said he had no idea why they would fire on him.

He phoned somebody to pick him up from the restaurants, but under questioning could not recall who this was. Nel was sceptical, again, that Pistorius could recall details of the exact route he had taken to escape the car, but not the identity of whoever he phoned to collect him. Nel suggested that this was because the incident had never taken place.

Next on Nel’s agenda was Pistorius’s dispute with local businessman – and producer/star of the extremely awful reality TV show ‘Clifton Shores’ – Quinton van der Burgh. Pistorius’s gripe with van der Burgh was that the latter had taken his then-girlfriend Sam Taylor overseas while Pistorius was competing at the 2012 Olympics “on the pretext” of it being a work trip.

Pistorius found himself at the same function as van der Burgh at a race day at Kyalami shortly afterwards. He testified that van der Burgh “couldn’t keep his eyes off me”. As Pistorius prepared to leave, van der Burgh turned to look at him. Pistorius seems to have interpreted this as provocation: he went up to van der Burgh and told him “I have very little respect for you”. Pistorius said he was not aggressive and did not swear. He says van der Burgh did not reply.

This incident gave rise to another dispute on the phone with van der Burgh’s friend, former soccer player Mark Batchelor, during the course of which Pistorius allegedly threatened to break Batchelor’s legs. (Pistorius denies this.) On both occasions, Nel suggested, Pistorius had actively sought out confrontation rather than avoiding it.  Pistorius’s account, by contrast, is that he was trying to “defuse” matters.

Nel wanted to return to the scene of the crime. He was keen to discuss Pistorius’s attempt to cover up a blue flashing light on an amplifier in his room, after Pistorius woke in the early hours of 14th February 2013. If the light was sufficiently sharp to bother Pistorius, would it not have illuminated the area, Nel asked. (Pistorius is obviously in trouble if the state is able to establish that there was any light in the room which would have enabled Pistorius to perceive Steenkamp’s absence from the bed.) Pistorius said that it was a very small light, and would not have cast any illumination.

How was it, Nel asked, that Pistorius had been able to hear what he believed was the window sliding open in his bathroom – but not the sounds of Reeva Steenkamp getting out of bed just near to him? “That noise would be a lot louder than anyone getting out of bed,” Pistorius testified.

As soon as Pistorius heard the noise from the bathroom, he rushed to grab his firearm, turned to face the passage and told Reeva softly to get down and call the police.

“Why didn’t you say, Reeva, did you hear that?” Nel asked. “She was awake.” A reasonable person would have done this, Nel said. He pointed out later, for instance, that all the neighbour couples who had heard noises from Pistorius’s house that evening had discussed the noises with each other. Pistorius said that there had been no doubt in his mind about what he had heard.

Nel also mentioned that Sam Taylor had testified that when Pistorius had heard strange noises in the past, he had asked Taylor if she had heard it. Pistorius conceded that this had happened on one occasion, when the noise turned out to be his dog knocking over chairs downstairs.

Pistorius did not wait for a response from Steenkamp, he said, because “my whole being was fixated on this person that I thought was in the bathroom”.

13.00. It’s an early finish for us at the North Gauteng High Court, occasioning much grumbling from foreign observers as to the idle spirit of our legal system. Journalists, as you can imagine, aren’t complaining.

When matters resumed after tea, Nel took up the issue of a pair of Steenkamp’s jeans, which Pistorius said he found on the floor and was preparing to throw over the amplifier light to obscure it when he heard the sound in the bathroom. At this point, he testified, he immediately dropped the jeans on the floor.

In police photos of the scene, Nel suggested, the jeans are lying on top of the edge of the duvet on the floor. This is significant because it would suggest that the duvet had previously been discarded on the floor, whereas Pistorius has testified that when he left the bed the duvet was safely on it, with Steenkamp underneath it.

The defence’s Barry Roux, who hasn’t been looking too happy this week, intervened at this stage. He said that police colonel Bennie van Staden had testified that when he arrived on the scene the jeans were “next to” the duvet, though Nel has previously said that this interpretation also fits the arrangement, since the jeans are both next to and on top of the edge of the duvet. Roux also suggested that the positioning of the duvet could be an optical illusion from the photo, merely appearing to be on top. Judge Masipa resolved things by instructing Nel to say that it “looks like” the jeans are on top of the duvet, rather than presenting it as a statement of fact.

Pistorius continues to maintain that police moved these elements of the crime scene.

We returned to the issue of the fans, with Nel suggesting that even if Pistorius’s version of where he placed the fans (before police allegedly moved them) was accurate, they would have been in the way of Pistorius rushing to put on his prosthetic legs to bash down the toilet door. Pistorius said it was possible that he had kicked them out of the way; he didn’t remember. Pistorius said his memory was clear only up until he discharged his firearm.

“It’s a difficult time to remember,” Pistorius said, losing control of his emotions. “This was the night I lost the person I cared about. I don’t know how people don’t understand this.”

We adjourned for a tear break.

Nel led Pistorius to tell again about how he felt for his gun immediately after hearing a sound in the bathroom. “My intention was to put myself between Reeva and whoever was in the bathroom,” Pistorius testified, as he has several times. Nel then broached the question that has been on many people’s minds for the past year: Why did Pistorius not make sure that Reeva was in bed before acting?

“I was sure that she was there because she spoke to me,” Pistorius said. “Ah, so that’s why you changed your version,” Nel responded.

What Nel was referring to here is Pistorius’s new testimony on the stand this week that when he woke up, Steenkamp was awake too, and asked him if he couldn’t sleep. This information was not Pistorius’s bail affidavit. Nel’s implication is that Pistorius added this detail into his verbal testimony because it would provide a justification for Pistorius believing that Steenkamp was in bed without needing to check.

“You never established if she was scared?” Nel asked.

“That is correct, milady,” Pistorius replied.

“You never established if she heard you [when Pistorius told her to get down and phone police]?”

“That is correct, milady,” Pistorius replied.

He said that he had not had time. Nel suggested that the two of them could have hidden together, but Pistorius explained that he believed that this would have put Steenkamp in harm’s way.

“So you entered the bathroom ready to shoot?” Nel asked. Pistorius replied that this was incorrect. “There’s a massive difference between being ready to deal with a confrontation and being ready to shoot,” he replied. Nel put it to him that while he was walking down the passage, gun in hand, if he had seen someone he would have fired. Pistorius replied that he wasn’t sure. Nel grilled him quite extensively about his thought processes while approaching the bathroom, relevant because the state will be looking to use this information in building a picture of Pistorius’s intention before shooting.

Pistorius also gave some idea of the kind of threat he thought he might have to face. At one point he suggested that intruders could have come at him “spraying mace”. At another point he said that perhaps they could have run out and “choked me”. (Responding to the perceived threat of mace and/or choking with four gunshots will seem, to many, excessive.)

He confirmed that at no point during his shouts and screams to Steenkamp had she uttered a word in response, even when she was a mere three metres from him in the toilet. “It’s not possible,” Nel said flatly. “She would be scared. She would shout out.”

Pistorius said he thought she would have kept quiet for that very reason. In Steenkamp’s mind, he suggested, it would have seemed as if Pistorius was retreating into the bathroom.

“Are you sure, Mr Pistorius, that Reeva did not scream after the first shot?” asked Nel. Pistorius sat back in silence for several moments, his head tilted back and his jaw clenched. “She didn’t scream. I wish she’d let me know she was there,” he said.

Under questioning, however, he admitted that he would likely not have heard it if Steenkamp had screamed, due to the decibels of the gunshots ringing in an enclosed space. “When I finished I was screaming, I couldn’t hear my own voice,” he said.

“What happened to [Steenkamp] must have been unthinkable,” Nel observed.

“I’ve thought about it many many times,” Pistorius replied, his voice trembling once again.

Nel wanted to know what led Pistorius to open fire. Pistorius said that he heard a noise from inside the toilet “which sounded like wood moving”, which he interpreted to mean that the door was opening and someone was coming out of it.

And with that, matters were adjourned till Monday.

It’s likely to be a tense weekend for Pistorius. He’s not allowed to seek counsel from his legal team. Neither is any member of his family permitted to pass on messages from his lawyers; in fact, he’s not even supposed to discuss his testimony with his family. If anyone did have a sneaky word in his ear, though, it would likely be along the lines of: Stop talking so much. The athlete continues to give longwinded, rambling answers, and offer unsolicited information. It’s all grist to Nel’s mill.

After court was adjourned, we heard the latest in the series of bizarre sideshows peripheral to the trial. This one is the news that the South African Human Rights Commission has been asked to probe Nel’s cross-examination of Pistorius, and particularly Nel’s habit of calling Pistorius a “liar” on the stand. This was an issue already dealt with today, however, when Judge Masipa warned Nel against labelling Pistorius a liar. Frankly – given that Judge Masipa shows every sign of being able to navigate the court’s internal checks and balances with ease – it’s to be hoped the SAHRC bins the complaint.

Have a good weekend, trial-followers. DM

Photo by Reuters.

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