Oscar’s most ‘damning lie’

2014-05-09 00:00

OSCAR Pistorius has been accused of being a serial liar. Allegedly, he lied in court and out of court; he lied about a boating accident on the Vaal River in 2009, which left him seriously injured; and he tried to cover up an assault in December 2012, which made him look bad.

In court, he wept uncontrollably for the loss of the love of his life. He testified under oath (as a Christian) that he and Reeva Steenkamp had been in a “serious” relationship since the end of December 2012.

Yet just a month before he killed her on the eve of Valentine’s Day, Pistorius told a Sunday newspaper that he was “not ready for anything serious”. He was focusing on his career; girls “lie” when they say they do not mind how busy he is.

If the trial were a Eurovision Song Contest, his tune would get null points. He has descended from hero to zero, with only a few adamant admirers left.

And it’s not just the lies. The fact that he shot through a locked door using hollow-point rounds — ammunition designed to disintegrate on impact with tissue to cause maximum damage — must embarrass even the most diehard gun enthusiast and seems to reflect badly on South Africa.

But, however unattractive Pistorius may appear in the court of world opinion, it does not prove that he is guilty of the unlawful and intentional killing of Steencamp or of anyone.

To do that, the state must put together a narrative based on evidence — forensic evidence, neighbours’ testimony, motive would be nice but not essential, and so on, all pieces of an intricately constructed timeline, like a three-dimensional puzzle. And then the state must show that this narrative is so compelling, and the defence’s competing narrative so improbable, verging on impossible, that Pistorius must be judged guilty. Otherwise the defence must be given the benefit of the doubt.

Has Gerrie Nel succeeded in doing this? The trial is not over yet, but I’m not sure he has. However effective, detailed, and at times demolishing Nel has been, Pistorius has stuck to a narrative. You might think it tailored, improbable and muddled. But he was in a desperate crisis, and that is what he said happened. “It’s a difficult time to remember,” he said. “This was the night I lost the person I cared about. I don’t know how people don’t understand this.”

He thought he heard an intruder, he felt vulnerable, picked up his gun, went to the bathroom and shot through the locked toilet door. Only afterwards did he think it might be Steenkamp. He bashed down the door with the infamous cricket bat and found her.

The state’s evidence can be explained away. The cricket bat sounded like shots, Pistorius sounded like a woman. The crime scene was tampered with and cannot be relied on. Witnesses consorted and cannot be relied on. Steenkamp may have eaten without his knowledge, or not. He couldn’t say.

But is there a killer lie that proves his guilt?

The alleged lies may not prove fatal to his case, but there is a seemingly innocuous, even touching, detail that Pistorius mentioned both in his affidavit for bail and at the trial. Its importance has gone unnoticed but it is, in fact, the fatal lie.

In his cross-examination of Pistorius, Nel concentrated on the events leading up to and including the shooting.

Up until the shots, he said, Pistorius struggled with his version of events. But after the shots, his version was far clearer and less improbable. So it was hardly contested or analysed by the state.

I think that Nel missed a trick here. Pistorius’s version of events up to and including the shooting may be highly improbable, but still possible. It is his account of a detail after he shot Steenkamp that is not only improbable but impossible. If there were ever a smoking gun, this is it.

Pistorius testified that Steenkamp was alive when he found her after knocking down the bathroom door. In the affidavit for his bail hearing, he declared:

“Reeva was slumped over but alive. I battled to get her out of the toilet and pulled her into the bathroom.”

He altered this at the trial: she was not breathing when he found her. But he also testified that when he subsequently “placed her head down softly on the carpet Reeva was struggling to breathe”. So she was alive.

His thought was he must get Steenkamp to hospital, mustn’t wait. This detail was important to make sense of his actions after he found her, a sequence lasting some minutes. Pistorius says that he:

• phoned Stander and asked him to phone the ambulance (altered at trial, where he stated he asked him for help to take Steenkamp to hospital);

• phoned Netcare and asked for help (altered at trial, he can’t remember what he said but they advised not to wait for paramedics);

• went downstairs to open the front door, returned to the bathroom and picked Steenkamp up to take her to hospital, which was embellished at trial —he tried to force bedroom double-door open (to account for damage?), then realised it was latched, unlatched it, wheelchair friendly doors (to highlight his disability?), went back to bathroom, picked Steenkamp up;

• carried her downstairs in order to take her to hospital; Stander arrived, a doctor (Dr Stipp) who lives in the complex arrived; and

• downstairs, tried to render assistance but “she died in my arms” (embellished at trial, he put his fingers in her mouth to help her breathe but she died in his arms).

He concluded the affidavit: “I am absolutely mortified by the events and the devastating loss of my beloved Reeva.”

On his call to Netcare, it is unbelievable to me that Netcare would tell Pistorius that he should take Steenkamp to hospital, or even move someone who was struck by multiple hollow-point rounds, including to the head. If Netcare records phone calls made to it, what they said, and what Pistorius said to them, can be determined. That too could then be an incriminating lie.

On the other hand, if Netcare was given accurate information about Steenkamp’s condition, and then told Pistorius to take her to hospital himself, the wisdom of this advice should be seriously questioned.

The anomalies and inconsistencies in this sequence are typical of Pistorius’s testimony in general. What is so devastating to the story is his claim that Steenkamp was actually breathing at all.

State pathologist Professor Gert Saayman told the court that Steenkamp “did not take more than a few breaths after suffering her head wound”. No blood was found in her airways, suggesting she breathed only a few times before dying. This testimony was not contested by the defence.

Also Stipp testified that Steenkamp was dead, her “corneas were already drying out which was a sign of her demise”.

At the trial, Pistorius said that Stipp “didn’t seem like he knew what he was doing”. But as Steenkamp was dead, what could he do?

On Pistorius’s own version when examined by the defence, from the time he fired the shots to the time he bashed down the door and found Steenkamp, at least five minutes had elapsed. Then allow a good five minutes more until she died in his arms. On the state pathologist’s evidence, this is impossible, and the defence does not disagree.

Steenkamp might have lived a few seconds after the shot to the head. She did not survive to testify, but she left the state its best evidence: there was no blood in her airways. She could only have breathed a few times.

It took Pistorius’s lie to bring this evidence to life. Did he realise that the crime scene, if left, would look bad for him, and found a reason to move her body?

This would be a far more significant case of tampering with the crime scene than the defence is complaining about, and one would have to wonder what else Pistorius himself tampered with.

Perhaps he could not resist embellishing: she died in his arms. You could say that it was Pistorius himself who was the state’s star witness. — Biznews.

• Ros Godlovitch Chappell is a former Oxford philosopher and “mother” of the Oxford Group on Animal Rights. She lives in London.

• Biznews.com was founded and is edited by Alec Hogg. He can be contacted on Twitter (@alechogg and @biznews.com

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