An ex-girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius has testified he once shot through the sunroof of a car to amuse himself
LIVE coverage of the Oscar Pistorius murder trial was banned today to protect “the dignity of the deceased”. It also protected the dignity of the accused.
As prosecution witness Professor Gert Saayman, head of the forensic medicine department at the University of Pretoria, gave graphic details of the injuries inflicted on Reeva Steemkamp by Pistorius last year, it proved too much for the famed Olympian who covered his ears and became violently ill.
Court officials brought a bucket and moved microphones away from Pistorius’s seat to muffle the sound of his distress.
His brother Carl was also affected by the evidence and left the court, as Judge Thokozile Masipa asked Pistorius’s lawyer Gary Roux if she should halt proceedings. Roux answered that Pistorius wanted the evidence to continue but soon afterwards Roux asked for a stoppage as “my client is sick”.
Judge Thokozile Masipa adjourned the court as Pistorius was comforted by his sister Aimee.
PISTORIUS TRIAL RUNNING ITS COURSE
It was the second time in the day that proceedings had been halted. The first was when Prof Saayman had asked that his evidence not be broadcast by his media.
As a doctor, he said, he was bound to do “what my patient would have wanted me to do.”
It was the first time in over a week of testimony that someone had spoken up for the rights of Reeva Steenkamp.
The highly-publicised case which has attracted journalists and news crews from all over the world and is being telecast live on South African television, came to a halt as prosecution and defence lawyers joined together in an attempt to impose a media ban on graphic details of Steenkamp’s fatal injuries.
Pistorius, 27, who in 2010 became the first double amputee runner to compete against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics, stands accused of murdering his 29 year-old girlfriend Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year.
The second witness called today by the prosecution was Professor Saayman, the pathologist who carried out the autopsy on Steenkamp. Like all witnesses in the case, Prof Saayman has the right to deny his face to be broadcast during his testimony.
Prof Saayman went further, saying that his evidence would be so graphic that it should not be broadcast at all – a position supported by both legal teams, with the prosecution putting a formal gag application to the court.
The broadcast companies hired their own advocate to put their case.
In making their submissions to the court all three legal teams used the term, “dignity of the deceased”, a concept that has been largely lacking in the early stages of the trial. In fact, so much emphasis has been placed on the lifestyle, character and personality of the accused, that Miss Steenkamp, a law graduate and model, had been largely pushed to the background; a name, rather than a person.
The debate, that stopped the proceedings for over an hour, brought her rights, and the feelings of her family and friends, to the forefront.
It also focussed attention on an issue that will have great impact on the coverage of trials such as this in the future.
Counsel acting on behalf of “the media”, Nick Ferreira, was in fact representing only the broadcast media, not print or, as prosecution advocate Barrie Nels, pointed out, social media.
“I am no expert,” he said. “But what about Twitter?”
Ferreira, supported by Nels, suggested a compromise, that broadcast media not telecast the evidence live but be permitted to edit it for use at a later time. Twitter reports of the evidence would be banned and print media should use a “paraphrased” version that was less graphic.
“How do we know the print media will do that?” asked Judge Masipa, who has come done hard on the media’s coverage throughout the trial.
Mr Nels was momentarily lost for words.
“Um, well, my lady, we have to believe that they are responsible enough to do that.”
Judge Masipa ruled that there should be no live broadcast or Twitter coverage of Prof Saayman’s evidence, a decision that while ensuring no vision of Pistorius being ill could be broadcast, did not prevent descriptions of the scene in print or social media.
Mobile phone key to Pistorius trial
WHEN Oscar Pistorius went on trial for murder in South Africa last week, the prosecution was keen to unlock the Olympian’s mobile phone. Now they are desperate to do it.
Why? Because a mobile phone can’t be cross-examined.
The prosecution’s case is that double amputee Pristorius, the first disabled runner to compete in open competition at the Olympics, shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29, in a fit of blind rage on Valentine’s Day last year. The defence is arguing that 27-year-old Pistorius mistook Steenkamp for a burglar and killed her in a tragic case of mistaken identity.
So far chief prosecutor Barrie Nels has called nine witnesses to the stand in Pretoria, and nine times defence advocate Barry Roux has gone after them like a lion hunting zebra: slowly, quietly, then moving in for the kill.
His cross-examinations have become the focal point of the trial, and after week one the general consensus among journalists covering the case is that Pistorius and his team are ahead.
The South African judicial system is a hybrid version of British law with a few slight but vital differences — all of which seem to have gone in Pistorius’s favour.
Even when the prosecution has tried to use the system to its advantage, such as bringing two unrelated gun charges against Pistorius in order to get around the rule which prevents calling character witnesses, Roux has come out a winner.
The first charge, relating to Pistorius shooting a bullet into the floor of a crowded restaurant, was aimed at painting him as an irresponsible, trigger-happy playboy with no regard for others’ safety.
By the time Roux finished cross-examining prosecution witness, boxer Kevin Lerena, the impression was of a young man furious that a friend had handed him a loaded gun and whose first concern was that no-one had been injured.
The second gun charge, over an incident in which Pistorius discharged his pistol through the open sunroof of a car, gave the prosecution the opportunity to introduce the testimony of the athlete’s former girlfriend Samantha Taylor.
The next day’s headlines focused on Taylor’s claim that Pistorius had “cheated” on her with Steenkamp, and fired his gun in anger after being stopped and admonished by a police officer.
Less media attention was given to the fact that under cross-examination Roux had raised grave doubts about Taylor’s version of events and indeed, her veracity.
Not that Roux would have any concerns whatsoever about what the media or the public make of the case. There are no juries in South African law. The only opinion Roux has to worry about is that of Judge Thokozile Masipa.
And unlike Barrie Nels and the prosecution team who must convince her of Pistorius’s guilt, Roux’s must only create reasonable doubt to achieve an acquittal.
So far he has done that with a combination of repetitive questioning which so confuses witnesses that they recant earlier testimony, meticulous research that has shown crucial dates and times put on record to be incorrect, and highlighting flaws in the initial police investigation.
That last line of attack will become more aggressive over the next week as the prosecution moves from circumstantial to direct evidence, such as ballistic and pathology reports and reviews of statements by officers who were at the scene.
Roux will be licking his lips lion-like at the prospect. The South African legal system is hopelessly overworked and undermanned. Over 45,000 accused, one-third of the prison population, are behind bars awaiting trial. Just to get the results of a blood-alcohol test in a drink-driving case can take a year. More serious cases can take over seven years to be heard.
To cope with South Africa’s staggering crime rates, police officers are put on the streets with little training and experience and paperwork is often shoddy with an emphasis on moving the backlog rather than following protocol.
Given that the high-profile Pistorius case was pushed to the front of the line, there is a reasonable expectation that Roux will find as many holes in the state’s direct evidence as he did with the circumstantial.
The last time Roux cross-examined a policeman working on the case was at last year’s bail hearing when he so discredited officer-in-charge Hilton Botha that the 24-year veteran left the force in disgrace.
Botha’s replacement is Lt General Vineshkumar Moonoo who, two days before the trial started, took one of Pistorius’s two iPhones to Apple headquarters in California in an attempt to have it unlocked after the code provided by Pistorius did not work.
The prosecution hope that data contained in the phone will disprove Pistorius’s version of events on the night of the shooting — data that even Gary Roux will be unable to confuse, discredit or refute.
Significantly, nothing publicly has been heard of General Moonoo since he arrived in the US. Given what happened to Hilton Botha, if he can’t get the phone unlocked, maybe it would be better if he kept it that way.