Witnesses got facts wrong - Masipa

By Shain Germaner Time of article published Sep 11, 2014

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Pretoria - Judge Thokozile Masipa started her judgment in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial with a summary of the events leading up to Reeva Steenkamp's death.

She described the layout of Pistorius's home, a passage leading from the main bedroom to the en suite bathroom and a balcony attached to the bedroom.

She said Pistorius spent the evening with his girlfriend Steenkamp, and in the early hours of the morning of 14 February 2013 killed her.

She then recalled the counts Pistorius faces, from murder to contravening the firearms control act.

She spoke of how Pistorius had also been charged with negligently firing his gun in an incident where he allegedly fired his 9mm handgun through an open car sun-roof in 2012 while in the presence of two other people. He was also accused of discharging a bullet at an upmarket restaurant in a separate incident in January 2013, just a month before killing Steenkamp.

Pistorius pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

She detailed how Pistorius had, in his plea explanation, had claimed Steenkamp's death was an accident, and how he had believed an intruder was inside his home on the night of the shooting. He believed the intruder had broken in through his bathroom window, and that Steenkamp was still in bed. He had armed himself as he approached the bathroom, and when he heard a noise inside the toilet cubicle, fired at the perceived threat.

Judge Masipa said the accused had acknowledged Steenkamp was inside the cubicle after the shooting, and that he had inflicted the deadly wounds upon her.

Pistorius sat still, but appeared to cry quietly when Judge Masipa began describing Steenkamp's fatal injuries.

In detailing the State's version of events, Judge Masipa said prosecutor Gerrie Nel had argued that the couple were actually in a serious argument prior to the shooting, and one of the neighbours had heard noises indicating such a fight prior to the shooting.

A second pair of neighbours had also heard screams of both a man and a woman coming from Pistorius's home.

Judge Masipa said that the neighbours in closest proximity to Pistorius's home, had, however, only heard a man shouting, which reflected the athlete's version of what happened after the shots were fired.

“The accused denied allegations that he had killed intentionally,” said Judge Masipa. According to Pistorius, he was acting in the mistaken belief that his life was in danger.

He claimed he was unaware that Steenkamp had gone to the toilet.

She said that among the undisputed facts was that screams were heard from Pistorius's home, and that he had fired on the toilet cubicle door while on his stumps. Three of the four shots hit Steenkamp and she died from her injuries. Soon after the shots were fired, Pistorius called for help, then used a cricket bat to break down the door and carried Steenkamp's body downstairs. Pistorius had also tried to resuscitate Steenkamp which was noted by multiple witnesses who arrived at the home.

Judge Masipa then said it would not serve any purpose to summarise all of the evidence presented to the court, but that she and her assessors had taken it all into consideration in making their decision.

She said many issues had emerged during the trial, such as police allegedly contaminating the scene of the crime during their investigation. This was considered of great significance.

She then moved onto her analysis of the murder charge. She said that the sound of the gunshots and the sound of the cricket bat breaking down the bathroom door were inextricably linked.

She said that some of the sounds witnesses interpreted as gunshots were actually the cricket bat hitting the door.

This could explain why some witnesses had heard more than four gunshots, while others missed the sounds because they were asleep, or on the phone at the time.

She said that contradictions among these neighbours' evidence did not mean their testimony should be thrown out.

She said it was understandable as to why there would be some contradictions in the various neighbours' testimony, considering the varying distances between their homes and Pistorius's.

Judge Masipa then explained how the defence had argued that the female screams heard by witnesses were actually Pistorius's in a state of extreme agitation. However, she noted that the athlete's ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor had testified that Pistorius's shouts and screams could never be identified as female. However, Taylor conceded she had never heard Pistorius in a life-threatening situation.

Judge Masipa also said a defence sound expert had cast serious doubt over whether these witnesses could have interpreted the screams as male or female from such a distance.

Professor Gert Saayman's post-mortem report was then analysed.

According to Saayman, Steenkamp was incapable of screaming after sustaining the wound to her head. This suggested that she would have only lived for a few seconds after sustaining it.

Judge Masipa believed that the bullets were fired in quick succession, and that the only person who could have screamed after the shots was Pistorius himself.

The screams were heard after the shots were fired, and before the banging noises of the cricket bat.

She believed that the reason witnesses got their facts wrong was because of the media coverage of the case. Most of the witnesses had admitted under cross-examination that they had followed the case in newspapers and through broadcaster news coverage.

Darren Fresco, who was present for the two other shooting incidents, had also followed the case, according to the judge, and had an idea of what he would be asked.

“I am of the view that some of the witnesses failed to separate what they knew personally from what they heard in the media,” said Judge Masipa.

She said she did not believe any of the neighbour witnesses had tailored their evidence to support the State's case, as implied by the defence.

The judge believed that memories are fallible, but that the phone records had allowed the court to create a timeline of events.

At 3.12am, the first shots were heard. Between then and 3.17am, screams were heard from the home.

At around 3.16, two of the neighbours were trying to phone the estate's security, while a minute later, another was phoning the SAPS on 10111.

A few minutes later, neighbours were already arriving at Pistorius's home. Paramedics arrived a short while later, and at 3.50am had declared Steenkamp dead.

Judge Masipa then moved onto the State's theory of an argument leading to the shooting. Judge Masipa said there could be many reasons, for example as to why Steenkamp took a cellphone into the bathroom. Rather than calling for help, Steenkamp may have used it to light her way.

She said the State had argued that based on a series of WhatsApp messages between Pistorius and Steenkamp, the couple were already on rocky ground.

The defence had given their own messages to prove the couple were deeply in love. However, Judge Masipa said none of these messages were relevant as relationships are highly dynamic and thus could not prove the state of the couple's happiness.

The State had also argued that based on the contents of Steenkamp's stomach, she had eaten something just a short while prior to her death, contradicting Pistorius's story that the couple had eaten much earlier in the night.

Judge Masipa said that as both State and defence witnesses had claimed, gastric emptying analysis was an inexact science. She said it was possible that Steenkamp went to eat something while Pistorius was asleep, but that it was difficult to know for sure.

She then began her analysis of the defence's case.

Pistorius had claimed that the couple went to bed at around 9pm. At around 3am, he got out of bed to bring in a pair of fans on the adjacent balcony and close the door.

He claimed he heard a noise coming from inside his bathroom, and after arming himself, he told Steenkamp - who he thought was still in the room - to call the police.

He then moved towards the bathroom without his prosthetics, and saw the window was open. Upon hearing a noise in the cubicle, he fired through it. When he returned to the bedroom, he noticed Steenkamp was nowhere to be seen and came to a grim realisation.

The cubicle door was locked, and Pistorius used a cricket bat to bash through it. He saw Steenkamp in a sitting position on the floor, her head lying on the toilet. He lifted her body and took her downstairs.

She said psychiatrist testimony by defence witness, Dr Merryl Vorster, had theorised that Pistorius believed he had never intended to shoot anyone, and only pulled the trigger when hearing the noise. “He did not purposefully fire,” Vorster had told the court.

According to Vorster, Pistorius remembered pulling the trigger, but couldn't recall all four shots.

The discharge was accidental, and not meant to fire at someone, according to Vorster. This was echoed by Pistorius's own testimony, as he believed an intruder was coming out of the cubicle to attack him, but the shots were still accidental.

He said he'd never considered pulling the trigger, but if he wanted to kill the intruder, he would have fired higher, but Judge Masipa said this was inconsistent with someone who did not consciously choose to fire.

The judge called for a recess until 11.30am.

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IOL and Sapa

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