Oscar trial: Expert lost in translation

2014-03-13 12:11
Forensic investigator Johannes Vermeulen, speaks during a cross examination by Barry Roux at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (Themba Hadebe, AFP)

Forensic investigator Johannes Vermeulen, speaks during a cross examination by Barry Roux at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (Themba Hadebe, AFP)

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2014-03-13 11:24

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Pretoria - It has taken almost two weeks for the Oscar Pistorius murder trial to get truly tedious, but it has finally happened. The high pace of the first days, with its testimony of screams heard by neighbours and shots fired off in busy restaurants has ground to a halt at the door through which the athlete shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and the cricket bat he used to kick it down with.

Barry Roux SC is questioning the materials analyst of the SAPS forensics department Colonel Johannes Vermeulen. He is trying – with some difficulty – to convince the analyst that the police went about their work in a certain way, in order to make adverse findings against Pistorius.

For example, Vermeulen failed to investigate a certain mark on the pieces of door, which the defence alleges was made by Pistorius’s prosthetic. And therefore if he kicked at the door, it suggests that his version of what happened that night is the accurate one. The colonel is not biting though, and countered by saying that it could have been a mark that came from the athlete stumbling on the door piece.

But Vermeulen never investigated that possibility because he was only asked to analyse the exhibits to match the marks on the cricket bat to the door.

'I did not bother'

The issue of second languages has arisen before in the trial, and Vermeulen may regret not having used his native Afrikaans to give testimony. He was asked if he ever read Pistorius’s affidavit, and he answered to say that he did so for the first time just a few days before the trial was to begin. He made a point not to have any external factors influencing his decision-making during the investigation itself.

Roux said that it seemed strange that he could read in the affidavit that Pistorius kicked the door down with his prosthetics, and then not go back and investigate that possibility.

“I did not bother about that. I [did not care] about Pistorius’s version,” Vermeulen said. It seemed like an unfortunate way to try and say that he couldn’t have this outer influence on his findings, and could only really act from instruction from the investigating officers.

It also emerged on Thursday that no inventory of goods was taken inside Pistorius’s house, and the defence claims that the police helped themselves to some of his watches.

Roux also brought up a video on YouTube, in which someone in the United States decided to test the difference between a gun fired at a door, and a cricket bat, at 180 metres. It seemed strange that he would do so, except that watching that might make you think that the sounds are identical. This was, of course, a highly unscientific test done at a gun range and never replicated the conditions of the early morning of 14 February 2013. It was also a "test" done by someone who was not recognised by the court.

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However, Vermeulen never watched it, was never aware that it even existed and didn’t know that apparently some police have seen it. If the video had caused him to modify his investigation, one wonders if he wouldn’t have had to answer in court why he ignored standing police orders to allow subjective material to influence his views and professional opinion.

But the Pistorius trial cannot escape the media gaze, can it? An interesting, and perhaps even informative video made in a faraway country has somehow wormed its way into the Pretoria High Court.

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