Desensitising Oscar trial

2014-03-13 21:03
Oscar Pistorius appears in the North Gauteng High Court. (Alon Skuy, Pool)

Oscar Pistorius appears in the North Gauteng High Court. (Alon Skuy, Pool)

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Pretoria - On Thursday, the question of the special treatment that the Oscar Pistorius trial is getting reared up again, though indirectly.

Not far from the North Gauteng High Court, in Centurion, the Marikana Commission of Inquiry is plodding along.

The police who shot and killed 43 miners on 16 August 2012 are testifying about what happened that day, under cross-examination from multiple legal teams.

Some of the details of how the miners died are disturbing – some had shots to the back of the pelvis and the head, and some were shot with their hands tied, or bound behind their backs.

This evidence continues to rubbish the police version of events; that they were acting in self-defence and private defence.

Some of the images of the dead miners quickly found their way onto social media and started floating about.

This has been the treatment of the footage of the dead miners in general. Videos of their dying moments were broadcasted around the media, and were openly shown at the commission.

The same happened to pictures of the bodies.

In contrast, the trial of Pistorius was briefly adjourned so that the prosecution could remove some of the most sensitive images of Reeva Steenkamp’s body.

State prosecutor Gerrie Nel said that the broadcast media was warned that some of the pictures to be shown would be disturbing, and, therefore, there should be fair warning for TV viewers and the like.

At one point during the re-examination of SAPS forensic analyst Colonel Johannes Vermeulen, Pistorius and the court audience caught a glimpse of some of the images. They were bad – and set the athlete vomiting.

The court will be obliged to halt every time Pistorius gets into a state. He has to be there for everything that happens, explained UCT law lecturer Kelly Phelps.

"It is a fundamental part of the right to a fair trial to face your accusers in court," she said. "You need to know what is being said about you so that you can properly respond to it if called on to do so. That is why he has to be there."

But the person who went through the photos of the Pistorius house was the retired Colonel Giliam Schoombie van Rensburg.

At the time of Steenkamp’s death, he was the station commander of the Boschkop police station that covers the precinct in which the Silver Woods Estate is located. After spending 24 hours chasing after an armed robbery gang, he responded to the call.

A detailed journey

The prosecution then made him take a step-by-step journey through the house, and who he saw there. His testimony corroborates that of other witnesses – Pistorius had carried Steenkamp’s body downstairs from the toilet where she was shot, and that the estate manager Stander and his daughter were present.

In fact, it was the Standers that talked to the police as they arrived.

The court then took a detailed journey through the Pistorius house, following the trail of blood all the way to the smashed door and the toilet.

Pistorius’s house had blood smears everywhere – from railings to random furniture in different rooms, to a display of watches in his bedroom. The photos also showed an air rifle and baseball bat lying around in the bedroom.

The blood smears were huge and told the story of someone bleeding profusely. But the court made sure to skip over the body lying downstairs.

We didn’t get to see that.

Not that we ought to have. But that should always be the case. As explained by the forensic pathologist Dr Gert Saayman who examined Steenkamp’s body and declined to discuss that evidence on live television and radio, averting the public gaze at this point is about the good morals of society, and the dignity of the deceased, and respect for the loved ones who still remain.

Perhaps the differing treatment of bodies in different cases will spark a serious conversation in South Africa about preserving the dignity of all people, regardless of their social status or wealth.

Read more on:    reeva steenkamp  |  oscar pistorius  |  pistorius trial  |  crime

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