Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pistorius trial: Day One – a scene-setter with familiar notes

No fear No Favour No Dirty Cops please............

Rebecca Davis SOUTH AFRICA 4 march 2014  01:24

The first day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial introduced many of the elements we can expect to see throughout the case. A delay, some incompetence; a defence strategy which will see Pistorius’s crack lawyers do everything in their power to discredit witnesses; and an early verbalising of the fear that is claimed to stalk suburban South African streets. By REBECCA DAVIS.

Monday in Pretoria dawned gloomy and wet, with the iconic Union Buildings shrouded in fog. On the same day, on the other side of the world, British luminaries paid tribute to the life and death of Nelson Mandela in a memorial ceremony held at Westminster Abbey. But the world’s attention was elsewhere; on another son of South Africa who once posed proudly for a photo with Mandela, his neck wreathed with sporting medals, but who today stands trial for murder.
Behind the Palace of Justice where Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Trial lies the North Gauteng High Court, where Pistorius faces his own life term if convicted of murder. Many hours before Pistorius’s scheduled arrival on Monday morning, the street filled with journalists. Above, a small drone carrying a camera buzzed overhead, capturing images. The rain started to fall more insistently. “It’s a message from God about how far we’ve sunk,” a fellow journalist said wryly.
The soggy vigil outside the courthouse was all for naught. When Pistorius did enter the court, he avoided photographers’ attention by using a different entrance to the one journalists were expecting. Perhaps it’s the fact that photographers are no longer allowed to stand millimetres away from his face in the dock, snapping away, but Pistorius seemed more composed than at his emotional bail hearing.
His siblings, Carl and Aimee, now recognisable faces in their own right, arrived earlier and took up their places on the hard court benches. (Those in the know, like Pistorius himself, bring small cushions to ease the ache of extended sitting.) The Pistorius family sat only a metre or so from the mother of Reeva Steenkamp, June, but the two parties showed no signs of acknowledging each other. June Steenkamp wore black. Her husband Barry was not in attendance, having previously suffered a stroke.
June Steenkamp had previously told the Mail On Sunday that while she couldn’t bear to be present in court while the forensic details of her daughter’s last moments were endlessly rehashed, she wanted to be there for the case’s opening and its verdict. “I want to force him to look at me, Reeva’s mother, and see the pain and anguish he has inflicted on me,” Steenkamp told the British tabloid.
Pistorius’ defence team is hell-bent on painting the picture of a couple in a serious, loving relationship, but one of the reminders that Pistorius and Steenkamp had not been together long at all is the fact that he never met her family. Neither did he appear to do so on Monday, and the layout of the courts – where the accused sits with his back to the public – means that Steenkamp is unlikely to have felt particularly fulfilled in her intention.
Not many people who’ve been in a South African court were expecting the proceedings on the first day of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial to start on time. (Except, apparently, the producers of the new 24-hour Oscar channel.) As it turned out, despite a full retinue of international journalists waiting with Tweeting devices poised, the trial kicked off around an hour and a half late.
A Department of Justice official confirmed this was due to problems sourcing the necessary interpreter. A rumour quickly circulated that the Afrikaans translator who had been scheduled to do the deed found out last minute that it was the Pistorius case, burst into tears, and refused. You can’t necessarily blame him or her. This is not for the faint-hearted. The successful media application to have much of the Pistorius trial broadcast live has changed the stakes for court functionaries like interpreters, who risk being seen to fail to perform adequately in front of a global audience.
But the media chaos which accompanied last year’s bail hearings was at least a thing of the past inside the courtroom itself, with the pre-planned accreditation system – giving half the available seats to local journalists, and half to international correspondents – seeming to work reasonably smoothly. Journalists relegated to the overflow room, where proceedings are watched on camera, may feel differently – given that the state’s first witness requested not just that her face be concealed to TV broadcasts, but also to the overflow room.
With Pistorius pleading not guilty to the charges of murder and reckless discharging of a firearm in public, the defence laid out their roadmap for the case. Much is already familiar from the bail hearing. Pistorius sticks to his claim that he heard what he thought was an intruder in the bathroom, assumed Reeva Steenkamp was sleeping next to him, and fired into the bathroom in fear and panic, rendered vulnerable by his stumps.
It seems now that the central issue to the case may become the quality and stability of Pistorius’ relationship with Steenkamp. For the state’s claim of premeditated murder to make any sense, they need to establish an argument on the night. If the much-anticipated phone records give up no secrets, their most plausible way of doing this is through the testimony of witnesses who claim to have heard screaming, shouting or raised voices before gunshots.
The state’s first witness, University of Pretoria lecturer Michelle Burger, has already testified along these lines. You can see why the state would have wanted to open with a witness like Burger, a PhD-holder, who despite her relative youth was calm, self-assured and resolute in her testimony. This was doubly impressive given the two substantial factors she had working against her: firstly, the unrelenting interrogation of Pistorius’ top attack-dog Barry Roux; and secondly, some seemingly shoddy Afrikaans-to-English translation from the substitute interpreter.
It’s easy to make more of the interpreter issue than might seem warranted because it fits neatly into the narrative established by the ‘fake interpreter’ at Mandela’s memorial, Thamsanqa Jantjie. Indeed, as court broke up for the day, at least one British radio correspondent could be heard building the larger part of his story around this trend in a crossing to his station. But there is a genuine issue here which deserves much more in-depth attention: if South African courts and public events can’t get translations right for the most high-profile of occasions, one can only imagine the difficulties they pose in everyday legal situations.
Burger’s testimony was effective because she stated repeatedly that she heard a woman’s voice raised in terror and anguish; a voice so permeated with fear, in fact, that she said it took a lasting emotional toll on her. The tabloids, unsurprisingly, have already run with this in characteristically understated style. Front page of The Daily Star, UK, Tuesday: “PISTORIUS SENSATION: I heard Reeva’s bloodcurdling death scream”.
But the problem with Burger’s version of events is that, on the surface, they don’t seem to make much sense to the state’s case. She claims she woke up hearing a woman’s screams, and yells for help from both a woman and a man. Then, Burger claims, the woman screamed again, more intensely, and she heard four gunshots. The idea that a both a woman and a man would be yelling for help before any gunshots were fired would not seem to fit with what the state is trying to prove.
Roux, for the defence, worked at persuading the witness that her recollection of events may have been retro-fitted in accordance with what she heard and read in media accounts of the evening, which Burger has acknowledged following closely. It seems, too, that the defence’s claim is that the loud bangs Burger heard were not gunshots, but rather the sound of Pistorius clobbering down the bathroom door after realising that Reeva might be inside. Their further claim – which Roux says a later witness will attest to – is that in times of anguish Pistorius’ voice can reach a pitch which may be mistaken for that of a woman.
The defence argues, in other words, that there was no man and woman yelling at each other on the night of 14th February; that Burger heard just one voice – Pistorius’ – alternating between a high and low pitch in his panic and sorrow before he bashed in the bathroom door.
What was interesting, however, was Burger’s repeated testimony that her immediate inference as to what was going on was that a husband and wife were being attacked by intruders. As commentators noted on Twitter, a more statistically valid inference, in a South African context, would have been that an episode of domestic violence was taking place. Burger’s immediate assumption that the likelihood was some form of armed attack gives credence, in its way, to Pistorius’ claim that he felt himself under threat even in a secure, upmarket area.
When quizzed about her familiarity with the precise sound of gunshots, too, Burger replied that she had heard gunshots before “in my neighbourhood”: a neighbourhood shared by Pistorius. Many said that, even if true, Pistorius’ intruder story spoke of remarkable paranoia. But the very first witness in the case has given the suggestion that such fears and assumptions are by no means unique to the disabled athlete. This may be a gift to the defence’s case.
If proceedings were largely dignified and orderly within the courtroom, the same can’t be said for the scenes which accompanied Pistorius’ exit. A wild scrum attended Pistorius’ bundling into a vehicle to be driven away, with a sea of baying photographers, journalists and curious Pretoria locals running alongside the car. As had been pointed out on social media earlier in the day, some of these same journalists and photographers had been pulled from the coverage of war-zones and dispatched to the Pistorius trial. It’s a battlefield of a different kind. DM
Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius arrives in court ahead of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria March 3, 2014. "Blade Runner" Pistorius pleaded not guilty on Monday to murdering his girlfriend at the start of a trial with massive media cover that could see one of global sports' most admired role models go to jail for life. (REUTERS/Herman Verwey/Pool)

Daily Maverick

Pistorius Trial: Day 2

Rebecca Davis  SOUTH AFRICA  4 MARCH 2014  09:33

The second day of the Oscar Pistorius trial dawned wet and wild in Pretoria. REBECCA DAVIS is there trying to stay dry enough to bring you updates from the proceedings at the North Gauteng High Court.

8.15 Send lifeboats to Pretoria Central. We are a soggy bunch here. The rain is coming down in buckets and the streets are awash with water. One journalist grimly wrung out sodden socks in the lobby of the court as we awaited entry to courtroom GD. We now know who one of the major winners from the Pistorius trial will be: a tent run by the Dros restaurant chain opposite the courthouse, which yesterday sold over 400 cups of coffee to sodden journalists.
If things run according to schedule, and we don't see a re-play of yesterday's translation dramas, we should be kicking off in court at 09h30. We expect to begin with a continuation of the cross-examination of the state's first witness, Michelle Burger, who yesterday delivered some compelling testimony as to having heard what she believed was a woman screaming prior to four gunshots. One of the next witnesses is expected to be Burger's husband, who may have had an uneasy night's sleep bracing himself for being quizzed by Pistorius's lawyer Barry Roux about some apparent contradictions between his testimony and that of his wife.
If we haven't floated away by then, we'll keep you updated.
11.00 Tea-time at the Pistorius trial, after some continuing Burger interrogation and a bit of unexpected media-related drama. Barry Roux took up this morning much as he left off with state witness Michelle Burger. If I were Burger I would have woken up with a sick feeling in my stomach at the thought of having to face Roux all over again, but apparently Burger is made of stronger stuff than many of us. Burger is accompanied by a different translator to yesterday, but has begun the day testifying confidently in English without seeming to need to rely on the translator at all.

Roux's opening gambit was again an attempt to convince the court that Burger's testimony had been affected by the previous media reports she had consumed on the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp. Burger again stayed resolute. Roux interrogated her again on the wording of her testimony in terms of the timing of overheard shots and screaming, and Burger still wouldn't  budge.

Here's where the daily sideshow intervened. The prosecution's Gerrie Nel rose to his feet to tell Judge Thokozile Masipa that he had just been shown a picture on his phone which indicated that the face of witness Burger was being broadcast on TV in contravention to her stated wishes. Muttering that this was "serious", Judge Masipa called an adjournment.

What had happened, it emerged, was that eNCA had been broadcasting the audio feed of Burger's testimony with an old still photo of her, taken from the University of Pretoria website. ENCA were not the only offenders in his regard: Beeld, to name but one newspaper, published an old photo of Burger on their front page today too.

The court order prohibiting witnesses' faces from being shown only explicitly mentioned photos taken while the witness was testifying in court, which is presumably why media outlets think they can get away with using old photos. But Judge Masipa begged to differ. Upon returning to the court she effectively extended the ban to include all photographs, old or new, of witnesses who do not wish to have their photos taken.

And fair enough: it could be a radical disincentive for people to testify in cases like these if they suspect their faces may be splashed across national newspapers and TV broadcasts. Judge Masipa was stern, warning media that they needed to respect these kind of regulations by the letter or face penalties. She also said an investigation into the eNCA photo broadcast would be carried out.

With this resolved, Roux was at it again. This time, as we predicted yesterday, he put it to Burger that she could not possibly have heard what she claimed to hear at a distance of 177 metres - with Steenkamp screaming from behind a closed door. Roux said Burger was welcome to carry out a test to prove its impossibility. Burger responded that houses had been built between her property and Pistorius's in the interim, likely muffling sound. Roux said the test could be carried out at closer range if she liked, projecting total confidence.

When we closed for tea, Roux was grilling Burger (apologies) about whether it was possible that her husband's testimony had influenced her own. Just before the break, he threw out a weird question about whether Burger would have been certain to give an accurate cellphone number at the time of giving a statement to police investigators. Bemused, Burger replied that she knew her own cellphone number. This being Roux, this could be an entirely diversionary query, purely designed to momentarily chuck Burger off balance. Or there could be more on the cellphone to come....*cues theme music from 'Jaws'.
13h00 Lunch at the Pistorius trial, where we've seen witness Michelle Burger complete her time on the stand and second witness Estelle van der Merwe called to testify.

The last moments of Barry Roux's cross-examination of Burger started with him trying to get her to concede that the statement that she gave to police investigators, and that given by her husband, were so similar that the two must have conferred beforehand. Burger denied this, saying essentially that the reason for the similarities between the two testimonies was simply that they had shared very similar experiences on the night in question.

Roux then questioned Burger on the element of her testimony which seems weakest in terms of supporting the state's case: the fact that she claims to have heard both a man and a woman yelling for help before she heard gunshots. Why would a man shout for help if he is about to kill his girlfriend, Roux asked. Burger was evasive in response, leading Roux to accuse her of being unwilling to make any concessions at all - even logical ones - which might help Pistorius.

Burger had previously indicated that she may have heard a woman's scream continuing shortly after shots were fired. Roux rubbished this, but in order to do so he had to provide some grim details as to Steenkamp's death. Of the four bullets fired, he said, the first hit her right side, the second missed and hit the wall, the third struck her in the shoulder, and the last hit her head.

The final bullet, the bullet which struck Reeva Steenkamp's head, did so with a force that would have left Steenkamp brain-damaged immediately and therefore incapable of crying out further. For this reason it was impossible that Burger had heard a woman's scream after the last shot, Roux said: another attempt to cast doubts on Burger's credibility as a witness.

The defence's Gerrie Nel had the opportunity to help his witness regain some ground with final questions. He chose to attack the defence's claim that Burger had mistaken the sound of a cricket bat striking a door with that of gunshots. How would you break down a door with a cricket bat, he asked Burger. She demonstrated, pretending to hold a bat and swing it at a door. Now can you make the sounds that you heard that evening, he asked. "Bang....bang bang bang," Burger replied. Nel hoped to impress upon the court the difference between both the tone and the rhythm of the sounds.

It was in her final moments in the stand that Burger succumbed to tears, when explaining her emotional state upon hearing the sounds of shots and screams. Standing down, many will consider that she stood her ground with great strength.

Succeeding Burger in the dock is the eighth witness on the state's list: Estelle van der Merwe, who lives in the same estate in Pretoria where Pistorius shot Steenkamp. Van der Merwe lives a good deal closer to Pistorius's property than Burger did - 98 metres apart, as opposed to 177 metres. She has testified that she heard voices talking shortly before2am, and four "bang bang" explosion sounds at around 3am.

If van der Merwe can convincingly make the case that what she heard could have been an argument, it will bolster the state's case. But so far van der Merwe has shown signs of being a tense and nervous witness - and at the moment, she's got the guy on her side (Nel) asking her questions. When Barry Roux brings his gimlet gaze to bear on her, she may not hold up as well as the state will be hoping.
Photo: Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius smiles during his trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, March 3, 2014. REUTERS/Herman Verwey/Pool






No comments:

Post a Comment