Oscar's defence harpers on number of shots

2014-03-03 20:40
Lawyer Barry Roux speaks to his client Oscar Pistorius in the North Gauteng High Court. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

Lawyer Barry Roux speaks to his client Oscar Pistorius in the North Gauteng High Court. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

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Oscar trial - small details count

2014-03-03 17:39

Law expert William Booth explains why small details count in the cross examination of a witness. Watch.WATCH

Pretoria - Stating the case against Oscar Pistorius, the prosecutor Gerrie Nel laid out the type of evidence he would lead: "There were only two people in the house, there were no eyewitnesses. The State's case is based on circumstantial evidence... and on what the neighbours heard... and lead ballistic and forensic evidence.”

The fact that much of the State’s case will rely on what the neighbours in the Silverlakes Estate heard on the night of Valentine’s Day 2013 has presented an opportunity for the defence to weaken the case, by throwing into doubt the veracity of the accounts presented to the court.

And that is the strategy that Barry Roux, SC, adopted with the first witness, Dr Michelle Burger.

She lives in an adjacent estate, but within 200m of Pistorius’s house, and testified that on the night of the shooting, she and her husband heard a woman screaming, gunshots, and the sound of a man screaming for help.

The screams of a woman woke her up, and then later four gunshots, “bloodcurdling” screams from a woman, and then the shouts (or screams) of a man.

Burger says that she said to her husband that she was afraid that a woman had just witnessed her husband get attacked by intruders, since she didn’t initially hear a man calling out.

She later repeated this fact to colleagues at the University of Pretoria where she works. It was only much later that she and her husband put two-and-two together when she was told that Pistorius shot his girlfriend, and heard of a witness testimony from someone who lived 600m away from the athlete’s house.

'Saw our house on TV'

“We realised that we lived closer [than that witness] because we saw our house on television on an aerial shot,” Burger said.

But the defence started by noting contradictions between the evidence in chief, and the statement noted by a police officer when the couple first reported what they heard.

In court, Burger appeared to add some colour to the events by describing the screams of the woman as "bloodcurdling", though the statement merely notes that she heard screams.

“I cannot understand how I heard screams and [Pistorius] didn’t,” she says. “When I heard that Pistorius shot his girlfriend, I was shocked because I couldn’t understand how I could hear the screams and he couldn’t. You don’t scream like that unless you believe that your life is in danger. I believed that it was a house break-in.”

But other witness statements read to Burger say that they heard the sound of a man crying loudly. Roux also pointed out that the sound of a cricket bat bashing down the toilet door might be heard as gunshots from her house, though she replied to say that she has experienced the sound of gunfire, and her house was perhaps too far from Pistorius’s to carry the sound of a bat hitting a door, but not too far to carry the sound of gunfire.

Roux also tested her ability to distinguish between a screaming man and woman by saying that she didn’t hear the screams simultaneously to be sure that they were coming from different people.

Number of shots could be an issue

Burger was unsure about the number of shots that her husband heard. It could have been four, or up to six. She is adamant she heard four, but this difference in recollection could become another point of issue.

The drama of the day was heightened by a less-than-brilliant interpreter, who often required that the witness step in and correct her version of events.

Roux pounced on the word ‘deurmekaar’, which he says is a description of a confusing night. However, Burger says that it was meant to convey a sense of trauma rather than confusion.

Roux’s end game may be to show that Burger may not only have been confused about what she heard that night, but that she came to court believing that Pistorius lied in his version of events.

The trial continues.

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

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