It’s Day 36 of the Pistorius Industrial Complex. It seemed that the current witness on the stand – Pistorius’s agent Peet van Zyl – might be the defence’s last witness, but we are hearing now that the team may have a few more up their sleeve. Either way, we are certainly down to the final stretch of the defence’s attempt to keep Oscar Pistorius out of prison. By REBECCA DAVIS
09.00 Well, well, well. South African athlete Arnu Fourie has posted a statement on Twitter clarifying (sort of) the circumstances under which he moved out of Pistorius’s room at the London Paralympics. During yesterday’s trial proceedings, the state’s Gerrie Nel mentioned a report that Fourie had been forced to move out of shared quarters with Pistorius because “Oscar was constantly screaming in anger at people on the phone”.
Fourie’s statement on the matter now makes no mention of Pistorius’s angry screaming – though neither does it explicitly deny the angry screaming.
“I approached our medical doctor at the London 2012 Paralympic Games to find out if the isolation room was available 2 nights before our 100m final. It was one of the most important races of my life and I wanted to rest and recover well on my own time in preparation for the race,” Fourie has written. “I cherish all the moments we shared at the London Games”.
It should be noted that even Pistorius’s manager Peet van Zyl, on the stand yesterday, did not deny that there had been “some issues” between Fourie and Pistorius which had necessitate their separation.
The article which makes the claim about the shouting was written by local radio host and Oscar Channel 199 presenter David O’ Sullivan, so presumably he will clarify matters at some point today. O’ Sullivan says that Fourie told him the story at the London Games:
I thought Fourie was joking and waited for him to smile. But he was serious. I was taken aback. I had never thought of Oscar behaving like that.
The ball’s in your court now, Mr O’ Sullivan.
11.20 It’s been a pretty eventful morning thus far at the Pistorius trial. Gerrie Nel continued his cross-examination of Pistorius’ agent Peet van Zyl first thing, and was in no mood to show mercy. The many moods of Gerrie Nel: restrained and respectful with sound expert Ivan Lin, but the attack-dog came out once again with van Zyl.
Van Zyl had testified on Tuesday that Reeva Steenkamp was the first girlfriend that Pistorius had ever asked to take to an international athletics meet, as part of a wider point that Pistorius and Steenkamp’s relationship was more serious and loving than any Pistorius had had previously. (The implication is, obviously, that he would therefore be highly unlikely to have shot her knowingly.)
Gerrie Nel clearly spent the remainder of yesterday in communication with Pistorius’s ex Samantha Taylor, however, because he whipped out contradictory evidence this morning. Nel produced an email which he presumably obtained from Taylor, for instance, showing that in September 2012, Pistorius had emailed Taylor’s passport scan to van Zyl. In the same email he said that the two were “sorting shit out”.
Van Zyl had previously testified that Pistorius never discussed the specifics of any of his relationships with van Zyl. Nel suggested that if Pistorius was referencing “sorting shit out” with Taylor in an email to him, without elaboration, it surely indicated that van Zyl was aware of past friction between Taylor and Pistorius. Van Zyl denied this.
Nel also read from an email sent by Pistorius to Sam Taylor in which the athlete made repeated mention of having invited Taylor to the London Olympics. Van Zyl replied that if this was the case, he had never been informed of it.
Nel then read an email from Pistorius saying: “I asked Peet [van Zyl] to do everything he could to find you a ticket”.
Van Zyl said that he could not recall this. Nel had him in a corner: the other option was that Pistorius lied to Taylor about having tried to organize a ticket for her.
Finally, as evidence of one more incident of an alleged temper outburst by Pistorius which van Zyl claimed to be unaware of, Nel mentioned an incident where Pistorius was excluded from the final South African team for a 4x400m relay. Nel claimed that Pistorius had “kicked chairs” at the relevant meeting.
Van Zyl said that he was not in the meeting himself, and that he had heard about the matter but was not aware that chairs had been kicked.
“[Pistorius] was more disheartened, almost in tears,” van Zyl testified.
Nel left it at that. Barry Roux’s only move during re-examination was to have van Zyl read out the tweet from athlete Arnu Fourie referenced above, concerning Pistorius’s decision to swap rooms at the London Paralympic Games. (Nel earlier had succeeded in winning from van Zyl the concession that Fourie did not explicitly deny Pistorius’s shouting).
Carl Pistorius, Oscar’s brother, tweeted Arnu Fourie a “fistbump” emoji of approval after Fourie’s statement on the matter.
Van Zyl was then released from the stand. Was he a significant witness? His objectivity must surely be called into question at every turn, given that he was employed by Pistorius and that his own financial future was and is linked to Pistorius’s. His claim not to remember certain aspects of Pistorius’s history also seemed, under Nel’s interrogation, unlikely.
For instance, van Zyl claimed to have only become aware that Pistorius was a gun fan recently and only seen his weapon in November 2012, when Pistorius wore a gun to his house. Yet high-profile articles about Pistorius published well before this time, which van Zyl said he’d read, highlighted Pistorius’s gun fixation. How on earth is it credible that van Zyl, who worked intimately with Pistorius, was left in the dark when the newspaper-reading world was aware?
With van Zyl dispatched, Barry Roux returned again to the matter of the reports stemming from Pistorius’s mental observation. “We’re not saying we accept as the truth everything,” Roux emphasized. He proceeded to read an excerpt from the psychologists’ report which proved interesting, because it’s been taken that the finding that Pistorius didn’t suffer from a disorder compromising his ability to distinguish between right and wrong was a blow for the defence. However, what the excerpt Roux read seemed to suggest was that there are other elements within the report which may actually bolster the defence’s case.
For instance, the report found that there was “no evidence” to indicate that Pistorius has a history of aggressive violence. It also found that Pistorius was not narcissistic in the clinical sense, despite Nel’s best efforts to paint him as such, and that Pistorius was not psychopathic. The athlete had the ability to self-reflect, it found, and his relationships with women were not characterized by abuse or coercion.
The report also recommended that Pistorius should continue to receive clinical care or the risk of suicide might be increased.
Gerrie Nel then had his chance to read out bits of the psychiatrist’s report, however. This found that Pistorius did not meet the criteria for having a Generalised Anxiety Disorder, in contradiction with the testimony of defence witness Dr Merryll Vorster. It concluded that Pistorius did have an “adjustment disorder”, but it developed after the shooting.
We’re now on to the defence’s fifteenth and final witness. They promised a strong conclusion to their case, and it does look like we’re likely to get one.
The final witness is Sports Medicine Professor Wayne Derman, who worked closely with Pistorius in his capacity as Paralympic team doctor. Derman is giving evidence about some of the unique challenges faced by disabled athletes, including additionally stressful travel. His specialization is the “neuro-physiology of stress responses”, which makes him well placed to talk about the likely reaction of a disabled person to perceived threat.
Through his six years of work with Pistorius, Derman testified that the athlete’s major physical issues were to do with his stumps, which suffered skin peeling and the subsequent infection and swelling of nerves. Derman also testified as to Pistorius’s psychological state, however, saying that he had found Pistorius to be anxious “during most interactions”. Pistorius, Derman said, has a “tremor of the hands” as well as a sleep disorder.
12.30 An early break for lunch, because Judge Masipa and her assessors have some decisions to make about the admissibility of evidence.
Before that, however, Derman continued to testify about Pistorius’s psychological state. He explained that his own psychological evaluation of Pistorius – measuring levels of tiredness, anxiety, hopelessness, etc – found that Pistorius’s “distress markers” were higher than for other athletes.
Derman also said, as several witnesses have, that Pistorius is “hyper-vigilant”. The athlete had an “exaggerated startle response” to fireworks in particular, he said, covering his ears and “cowering away” until the noise ended.
Then Derman got on to the crucial issue of the “fight or flight” response. He testified that disabled people tend to have a heightened “startle” response in response to perceived threat. Derman then indicated that he would like to read to the court an email he had received from a disabled massage therapist called Sue Kent.
Kent had read reports about Pistorius and the shooting and felt compelled to email Derman to share the experiences of other disabled people acting on auto-pilot. “I am amazed at myself and my automatic responses,” Kent wrote.
But that was about as far as we got, because Nel jumped up at that point to object to the reading of the email. Nel said it must surely constitute inadmissible, irrelevant hearsay evidence.
Kenny Oldwadge, who has been questioning Derman in place of Roux, was clearly prepared for this objection, as he had a dossier of case law to cite in defence of the email being heard. Nel remained unimpressed. Masipa and her assessors will be looking over the case law over lunch in order to decide whether Kent’s email can indeed be read in court.
15.00 Judge Masipa returned from the lunch break today with a ruling that favoured the state. She agreed with Gerrie Nel’s objection that the emails which the defence wanted witness Derman to read constituted hearsay and were irrelevant to the present matter. Not only did Masipa rule that the emails were inadmissible, but she ordered that all previous reference to them be expunged from the court record.
On with business. Derman spent the remainder of the afternoon on two tasks. The first was to painstakingly build the case that disabled people may justifiably fear more for their personal safety, because there is evidence to suggest that they are more often the target of attacks.
Derman said he had personally been present on two occasions on which disabled athletes had been assaulted. He cited at least two studies to show that disabled people are at an increased risk of attack by up to 50%.
Derman’s second task was to deal with the biological science behind the ‘fight or flight’ response, which necessitated a lecture about brain function. The crux of it was the following: that people with high levels of anxiety have less control over the amygdala – which governs automatic responses – during stressful situations. Derman again cited a number of studies which have been carried out to confirm this finding. These experiments, he said, have shown the difference in responses between people who are anxious and fearful, and those who are not.
“From a biological perspective there is a difference,” Derman said.
When we resume tomorrow, Derman will flesh out the central point here: that Pistorius was so anxious that it affected the way his brain operated under stress. It would seem here that the defence intends Derman to bolster Pistorius’s claim that he operated automatically when he shot through the door. But Derman can also lend weight to a defence of putative self defence, through his evidence that it was reasonable and justified for Pistorius, as a disabled person, to have increased fears for his safety.
One final sideshow to the day. With a copy of the Weskoppies psychologists’ and psychiatrist’s report on Pistorius circulating round the courtroom, some journalists took the lunch break to tweet the juiciest bits. The Pistorius family caught wind of this, however, and were concerned about the privacy implications. The defence team thus asked Judge Masipa to slap a ban on the publication of the psych reports. Masipa was clearly concerned to hear that parts of the reports had already been published, saying she “wished she had known”.
She ruled, however, that as of 15h05 it is prohibited to publish anything from the reports other than the summaries read aloud in open court over the past few days. A case of trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, given the amount of tweeting and retweeting from the report that was going on beforehand. It’s also been noted that these kinds of reports are routinely made public in cases like these, so there is some frustration from journalists.
It’s another illustration of the difficulties judges face trying to control the dissemination of court information in the online era. Back when Judge Masipa herself worked as a crime reporter, it was a simpler world in this regard. DM
Photo: South African Olympic and Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius (R) greets a wellwisher during his murder trial in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, 01 July 2014. Pistorius is on trial for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his suburban Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day 2013. EPA/MIKE HUTCHINGS / POOL
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