Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Seven, Day Four

By Rebecca Davis 9 May 2014

It's the 29th day of the Oscar Pistorius trial, at the end of a long and tiring South African week. As the last election votes are counted, today will see defence expert witness Tom "Wollie" Wolmarans return to the stand to give evidence combating the state's ballistics claims. By REBECCA DAVIS

09.00 Matters will shortly kick off for the day in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius at the North Gauteng High Court. Yesterday, after the initial testimony of anaesthetist Christina Lundgren, we heard from one extremely credible witness and one slightly less so: the latter being social worker Yvette van Schalkwyk, who felt it her duty to come forward to tell the world that Pistorius’s distress was (in her estimation) genuine; and the former being ballistic expert Wollie Wolmarans.

Wolmarans is here to cast doubt on the evidence given by one of the state’s strongest witnesses, ballistics expert Chris Mangena. When we adjourned for the day yesterday he was very methodically taking the court through his own ballistics report, though we haven’t yet really reached the meat of his evidence’s conflict with Mangena’s.

In other news, British tabloids are reporting that Pistorius has succeeded in selling the Silver Woods estate house where he was living at the time of the shooting last year. Pistorius’s lawyer Brian Webber reportedly said yesterday that the athlete had accepted an offer on the home. No amounts were divulged, but the house was apparently on the market for around R5 million. When it went on sale, it was reported that the reason for Pistorius offloading it was to help pay his astronomical legal bills. We know from trial testimony, however, that Pistorius had been planning to sell it even before the shooting, apparently to move to Johannesburg.

10.15 Another early adjournment here today, because the defence’s Barry Roux has finished leading Wolmarans in evidence somewhat earlier than expected.

Wolmarans suggested that the marks on Steenkamp’s arm indicated that she was “not closer than 20cm and probably 60cm from the toilet door”. He believes her arm was across her chest when she was shot. Wolmarans disputes Chris Mangena’s account that Steenkamp was cowering with her left hand against her head, saying that if this were the case, one would expect to find secondary wounds on the inside of her hand. He also said that if this were the case, you’d expect to find more brain tissue inside the hand.

Wolmarans repeated the defence’s claim that wounds on Steenkamp’s back were caused by falling against the magazine rack, rather than from the ricochet of a bullet. The idea that a ricocheting bullet hit her in the back “doesn’t make sense”, he says: a rebounding bullet would have not had sufficient impact to cause the injuries.

Pistorius was on his stumps when he fired at the door, he says – which is the state’s case also – and Wolmarans similarly concurred with the state that the shots were fired at the door before the cricket bat was used to break it down.

Yesterday Wolmarans asked Judge Masipa to repeat herself, because he said he was hard of hearing. I joked at the time that I hoped he hadn’t carried out the sound tests. It emerges that he did participate in sound tests, in fact, though he freely conceded to the court that he has persistent tinnitus (ringing in the ears, caused by his professional exposure to gunshots).

Wolmarans explained  that the sound of gunshots and a cricket bat striking a door were recorded at a range of 60 metres and 180 metres in March this year. He stressed that he was not a sound expert, but could state that the two types of sound “resembled each other”, although the gunshots were louder.

And that was it from Roux’s questioning of Wolmarans. We’re adjourned now because Nel needs time to set up some form of “reconstruction”.

13.00 The “reconstruction” Nel was mounting in court during the adjournment involved setting up laser beams through the toilet door to show the trajectory of bullets according to the state version, which was then inspected by Judge Masipa and her assessors.

Nel’s cross-examination got off to a fighting start, with Nel trying to claim that Wolmarans may have changed his report to tally better with the defence’s case after hearing the evidence of former witness Roger Dixon. Wolmarans conceded that he only submitted his report in late April this year. He also admitted that he had a (no doubt much-needed) beer with Dixon after Dixon’s gruelling time on the stand.

But Wolmarans strongly refuted any suggestion that he would have conferred with Dixon on the ballistics evidence, saying that he would not take ballistics advice from Dixon seeing as he wasn’t an expert. Nel pounced: in that case, he said, presumably the court shouldn’t accept any of Dixon’s ballistics testimony either.

Under questioning from Nel about whether it was credible that Wolmarans had not consulted with Pistorius, Wolmarans protested that he had never lied in court. Another opening: Nel asked if that meant Wolmarans’ evidence had never been rejected by a court. Of course, it emerged that there was a recent case – the murder trial of Yvonne Beetge, apparently – where Wolmarans’ evidence was rejected. But, Wolmarans protested, the matter was still under appeal.

Wolmarans was keen to stress the cordial, mutually respectful relationship between him and state ballistics expert Chris Mangena: Mangena calls him ‘Oom’ (Uncle), he said, and he calls Mangena ‘my seun’ (my son). And indeed, there are a fair number of aspects on which the two concur, including the matter of where Pistorius was probably standing when he fired.

The major issues under contestation are the order of bullets which hit Steenkamp, and her positioning within the toilet before and after the bullets began to strike. Wolmarans says that after the first bullet hit her hip and the second her shoulder, she fell backwards. Nel says that the tissue evidence in the toilet bowl means Steenkamp must have landed up with her head on the toilet, which he claimed was impossible on Wolmarans’ version.

Wolmarans said that the pattern of blood pooling showed that the magazine rack was in position by the toilet when she started bleeding. “That’s not the accused’s version,” says Nel: not the first time a witness hired by Pistorius has contradicted his own account.

They fought once more about the wounds on Steenkamp’s lower back, which the state says were caused by a ricocheting bullet and the defence says were made by her falling on to the magazine rack. Showing a close-up picture of the striation marks on the wound and a bullet fragment, Nel suggested the two matched perfectly. Wolmarans vehemently disagreed. He conceded, however, that the magazine rack on its own could not have caused the striations because the rack is smooth, and an edge would be needed. But, he said, Steenkamp’s vest rubbing on the magazine rack could have accounted for the striations.

15.00 After lunch Nel moved on to the mechanics of the gun used by Pistorius. Perhaps in response to Pistorius’s automatism defence, he clarified that you do have to fire the trigger of the gun for it to shoot. Wolmarans confirmed this.

He repeated his claim that the state had not given enough consideration to the issue of potential deflection when considering bullet trajectory. Wolmarans’ version of the way the bullets travelled is that the first bullet flew upwards. Nel scoffed at this, saying that for Pistorius to fire upwards his hand would have had to drop much lower.

On the matter of the sound tests carried out by the defence, Nel claimed that the recording of cricket bats striking a door had been amplified, because the sound of crickets in the back ground seemed much louder than in the recording of gunshots. Wolmarans reiterated that he was not a sound expert, and was not able to interpret the decibel tests.

Nel took issue with Wolmarans’ claim that Pistorius used ranger ammunition rather than Black Talon bullets, and asked Wolmarans if he had checked with Pistorius. Wolmarans replied that he had not, but he had come to his conclusion because Black Talon bullets were not made at 27 grain (a specific weight). Nel said Mangena begged to differ on this point. Wolmarans was unmoved, saying he would need to see proof from the manufacturers. He admitted he did not carry out many tests with the bullets because they were expensive and hard to get hold of.

With some final sparring about the marks on Steenkamp’s back, the court day came to an end.  When we pick up again on Monday, it’ll be Nel vs Wolmarans once again. DM

Photo: SOscar Pistorius (L) reads a document during his murder trial at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, 08 May 2014. EPA/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / POOL

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