Life, etc

Pistorius Trial: Week Ten, Day 1

By Rebecca Davis 30 June 2014

And…we’re baaaaack! After a six-week break in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, events at the North Gauteng High Court resume on what will be the 34th day of trial proceedings. Pistorius has completed his court-ordered psychiatric evaluation at Pretoria’s Weskoppies Hospital. News of a heart attack suffered by a member of his evaluation team last week threatened to delay the trial’s re-start, but all indications are that matters will go ahead today. REBECCA DAVIS is braced for the resumption.

09.00 It feels longer than 6 weeks ago that court was adjourned in the Pistorius trial. Maybe that’s because we’ve had a hell of a lot happen in South Africa since then: most obviously, the inauguration of Jacob Zuma’s second term as president, and the swearing-in of the fifth parliament of the democratic South Africa.

If you need a reminder of what was going on the last time court was in business, read our summary here.

Oscar Pistorius has successfully managed to stay out of the media spotlight while undergoing psychiatric observation. The only incident which drew attention came at the beginning of his observation period, when American televangelist RT Kendall visited Pistorius at his uncle’s home and then tweeted a picture of himself and the athlete with the words: “Oscar Pistorius gave me lunch in his home today in Pretoria, South Africa, Please, please, do pray for him.”

The trouble was that Kendall had tweeted this on a Monday when Pistorius was supposed to be at Weskoppies, prompting concerns about whether the athlete was really putting in the requisite time at the hospital. But the Pistorius family released a statement explaining that the lunch Kendall referred to had taken place on the previous weekend.

Other than that, it’s been silence on the Pistorius front. The team of one psychologist and three psychiatrists who have been assessing him will on Monday deliver their report to judge Thokozile Masipa. In the event that their findings were not unanimous, Masipa could ask them to clarify their findings, but a number of news outlets have reported that there was indeed unanimity in their conclusions.

There’s a really good, thorough article on The Examiner explaining that it’s relatively unusual for multiple mental health experts to concur in matters like this, at least in the US.  In a study conducted by the American Society for Trial Consultants, it notes, it was found that “the chances of 3 or more health experts agreeing unanimously on a complex case is less than 31% and less than 51% on cases that are considered straightforward”.

In other words, there must be very clear results in this case. The fact that the panel did not ask for extra time in this case is also revealing, as it suggests that the findings of the experts cannot have been so serious as to prevent the continuation of the trial.

The experts were assessing the matter of whether Oscar Pistorius was indeed suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) when he shot Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013, and whether this could have compromised his ability to perceive right and wrong. In ordering Pistorius to undergo evaluation, Masipa indicated that this matter – first raised by defence witness Dr Merryll Vorster –  was critical enough to warrant independent evaluation outside the court.

Psychiatrist Dr Leon Fine, a member of the team, suffered a heart attack last week. His signature is needed on the evaluation report, so this had the potential to delay the resumption of proceedings. It was believed, however, that this matter would be resolved by Monday.

For those hoping to hear the details of the report, you may be disappointed. It’s unlikely that the report will be read in court at this stage. After the report has been received, the defence will likely continue calling its last three or so remaining witnesses. Before the adjournment, defence advocate Barry Roux indicated that one of them would give further testimony as to Pistorius’s psychological state. It is also expected that another will reveal the results of sound tests carried out on Pistorius’s voice, to support his team’s claim that when neighbours heard what they thought was a woman screaming, it was really Pistorius himself.

When the defence’s case is concluded, court will break again in order for both legal teams to prepare closing arguments. When Judge Masipa ordered the court break for assessment she also instructed the lawyers to start work on these, so she may take this into account when providing a time period for their preparation.

Once the closing arguments are heard, court will break again for Masipa to write a judgment. She is said to have other matters requiring her attention over that period, so it may be quite a long delay. One thing is for sure: we are weeks or even months away from a verdict, rather than days. The wheels of justice turn slowly – but still quicker than for most other South African cases.

11.30 Tea-time at the Pistorius trial, after some fairly significant moments in the morning’s initial proceedings.

The most critical aspect to today’s events thus far has been that the psychologists’ and psychiatrist’s reports on Pistorius have been submitted to the court, and both defence and prosecution accept their findings.

We don’t know the details of what was in the reports, but we do know that both reports specified that Pistorius was not suffering from a mental disorder when he shot Reeva Steenkamp which would have affected his ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

That’s all we know for now. Judge Masipa will read the reports and decide whether there are aspects therein to take into account either in judgment or mitigation of sentence.

For now, though, it’s on with the show. First witness up again for the defence is Dr Gerald Versfeld, who is the orthopaedic surgeon who advised Oscar Pistorius’s parents to have their son’s legs amputated below the knee as a baby. It was also Versfeld who carried out the amputation, and who continues to treat Pistorius as a patient to this day.

(Versfeld is also allegedly the ex-husband of serial court-interrupter Annemarie. We haven’t seen Annemarie recently but she has on several occasions disrupted court proceedings with various applications. Most recently, these applications were to have Pistorius committed for psychiatric observation – so perhaps we’ve seen the last of her now that her wishes have coincidentally been granted.)

The defence’s Barry Roux has called Versfeld to the stand to testify as to Pistorius’s instability on his stumps. This is of relevance because it’s the state’s version that Pistorius was not wearing his prosthetic legs when he bashed open his bathroom door with a cricket bat. The defence aims to show that this is impossible due to his limited mobility without legs.

The second apparent purpose for Versfeld’s testimony is to make the point that Pistorius is physically vulnerable on his stumps, and therefore might experience great fear and anxiety when under threat.

Versfeld has testified that Pistorius walks with great difficulty on his stumps; that in general he needs his hands or arms to balance himself; and that his ability to turn around is severely impaired, as is his ability to flee or ward off danger.

“On his stumps, [Pistorius] is seriously vulnerable in a dangerous situation,” Versfeld told the court.

Pistorius gave another demonstration to the court of his instability on his stumps. Versfeld pointed out to Judge Masipa and her assessors that whereas a normal heel is stable, the soft tissue on the bottom of Pistorius’s stump is not.

Versfeld testified that Pistorius would have a severe problem balancing if he was carrying something with two hands. The athlete would not have been able to strike the bathroom door with a cricket bat, Versfeld said, because he would fall down. He also said that Pistorius has to rely on sight to be able to balance, because his stumps do not give him the “proprioception” – sense of how your limbs are oriented – that conventional legs would.

This latter point may be a bit of a gift for the prosecution. During the cross-examination, Nel has been spending some time on the issue. On Pistorius’s own version, after all, it was so dark in his bedroom that he could not have seen whether Steenkamp was in his bed. Nel asked Versfeld if he believed it possible that Pistorius could have walked to the bathroom in the pitch darkness without falling.

Versfeld described it as “improbable”. He also conceded that if the light in Pistorius’s bedroom was on, the risk of Pistorius falling would have been lowered.

Nel has also enumerated for Versfeld all the things Pistorius has claimed to have done in the dark, on his version, without falling: searching for Steenkamp, moving fans inside from the balcony, opening curtains, etc. Versfeld suggested that Pistorius could have used the larger tripod fan as a balancing aid while moving it.

13.00 After the tea-break, Nel continued grilling orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gerald Versfeld about what Pistorius would reasonably have been capable of on his stumps.   From Versfeld he won the concession that if it were pitch dark, it would be “unlikely” that Pistorius would have been able to walk without falling in an area where there were electrical cords, fans, duvets and so on strewn around.

When the defence’s Barry Roux’s shot at re-examination came, however, Roux brought things back. Roux said that it was not Pistorius’s version that it was pitch black at all times – when walking to the bathroom, for instance, there was some illumination from the passage. Would that have sufficed as a visual reference to orient himself for balance?

Yes, replied Versfeld, particularly if Pistorius was touching the wall for balance as he went along. Versfeld also confirmed that Pistorius’s familiarity with the layout of objects in his bedroom might protect him from stumbling over them.

With the surgeon dismissed, we took some time for Barry Roux to deal with a number of administrative matters, including photos to be placed into the court record.

Roux also said that during the adjournment, the defence team had wanted to check whether the electrical cord to which Nel had referred could have stretched to provide an impediment to Pistorius walking around his bedroom. But there was no electrical cord. The cord is not in the state’s possession, it is not in the inventory of possessions, it is nowhere.

It’s another instance in which police working on the case have been left with egg on their face. Judge Masipa described herself as “very unhappy” and concerned to hear that this piece of evidence could simply disappear, with Nel scrambling to give any coherent explanation. Masipa has ordered that an affidavit be produced by the person in charge of Pistorius’s house contents to explain what has happened to the cord.

On with the witnesses. Next to the stand is Ivan Lin, an electrical engineer by training who has latterly worked as an acoustics expert. It has been Mr Lin’s task for the defence to test the difference in sound between a man and a woman screaming at a distance. Pistorius’s neighbours claimed that they heard a woman screaming on the night of Steenkamp’s shooting; the defence team needs to suggest strongly that this was actually Pistorius’s own voice raised in grief and anguish.

Can a person distinguish between male and female voices over a range of 177 metres? And can a person discern emotion over that distance?

Lin has been taking his time getting to the meat of his test findings. His lengthy technical preamble has stressed the difficulty of replicating conditions in a sound test, with Lin saying that even as tiny a factor as grass length can potentially affect how sound is heard.

So far, Lin has said that one can typically, but not always, differentiate between a man and a woman screaming.

15.00 Just before the North Gauteng High Court adjourned for the day, Barry Roux concluded his questioning of defence witness Ivan Lin, an acoustics expert.

It’s now become clear what the defence’s modus operandi is here. They appear not to be pursuing the suggestion that it is Pistorius’s voice which uniquely sounds like a woman’s. Instead, they are going for the idea that any scream would be difficult to interpret accurately over the distances at which Pistorius’s neighbours lived.

The most relevant state witnesses here were the Stipps and the Burgers, both of whom testified to hearing a woman scream. The Stipps lived at a distance of around 80m from Pistorius’s house, and the Burgers at 177m.

Lin continued to emphasize that there are a large number of variables influencing how sounds are perceived: ground conditions; temperatures; wind; atmospheric pressure, and so on. But after he’d finished burying us in a baffling recitation of potential sound measurements, he got to the crux of it.

From a distance of 80m, Lin said, it was possible that a scream could have been heard from Pistorius’s house, though it might be difficult to interpret. At 177 metres, however, he said that it was unlikely that a scream could have been heard from within a locked toilet. In other words, he is casting doubt on the recollections of Michelle Burger and her husband in particular.

But that was pretty much it from Lin, leaving his evidence rather underwhelming. In short: it is not always possible to tell female screams from male; from a distance it is difficult to accurate interpret gender and emotion in screams; and from more than 170m it may have been impossible to hear a scream at all.

Given that Lin repeatedly conceded that any sound test trying to exactly replicate conditions on the night of the shooting was almost impossible, however, his testimony seemed less than earth-shattering – when you stripped away the technical obfuscation.

Versfeld and Lin are the thirteenth and fourteenth defence witnesses to take the stand. Tomorrow morning the state’s Gerrie Nel will have his go at Lin, having studied his report overnight. Does the defence have any final cards up their sleeve? If they are closing their case with the likes of Lin, it may conclude with more of a whimper than a bang. DM

Photo: South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius sits in a car as he arrives for the first day of observation at Weskoppies Hospital, Pretoria, South Africa, 26 May 2014. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius will undergo a psychiatric evaluation as an outpatient at the state-owned institution. The testing will last for a maximum of 30 days. Pistorius stands trial for the premeditated murder of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

Gallery
0