South Africa’s trial of the century began in the early hours of Monday morning, as the case against Paralympic gold medalist Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of murdering his 29-year-old model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, got underway in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa.
The 27-year-old double-amputee, who shot and killed Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year, pleaded not guilty to four criminal charges brought against him:one count of premeditated murder, two counts of recklessly discharging a firearm in public, and illegal possession of ammunition. If convicted of the first charge, Pistorius could be sentenced to life in prison.
Pistorius’s defense, led by his notoriously truculent advocate Barry Roux, initiated court proceedings with a highly detailed plea explanation that not only reiterated, emphatically, Pistorius’s claim that he did not intend to kill his girlfriend but also, in what seems to be something of a preemptive strike, itemized and contested what the defense believed would be the state’s strategic approach. This also included a vituperative assault on the state’s treatment of the case thus far, including accusations of contaminating the scene, conceding facts and evidence tampering, as well as what the defense claims is “inadmissible character evidence” that has been “entered to engineer an assassination of [Pistorius’s] character.” While plea explanations are due process in South African law, legal professionals have noted that it is unusual to lay out such substantive material elements of what the defense seeks to prove so early on in trial.
Sounds, semantics and ‘bloodcurdling screams’
Michelle Burger, who lives 170 meters from Pistorius’s Pretoria home, was the first of 107 witnesses to testify. She told the court that she woke up to the sound of ‘bloodcurdling screams’ just after 3am, followed by four gun shots—with a notable pause between the first and second—and a man shouting for help. Having allegedly heard two voices, which she claims were distinctly male and female, Burger’s first instinct was that a couple was under attack in their home, a cognitive reflex that has become commonplace among highly security-conscious middle-class South Africans, which, according to journalist Phillip de Wet, is something that could help strengthen a crucial defense claim:
She told the court that she woke up to the sound of ‘bloodcurdling screams’ just after 3am, followed by four gun shots—with a notable pause between the first and second—and a man shouting for help.
“In [Burger’s] testimony in Afrikaans, even more so than in the translation provided to the court, it was immediately clear that on hearing screams, Burger assumed she was hearing the result of a home robbery,” he reported on the Mail & Guardian website. “And the fact that Burger and her husband believed a robbery to be the likeliest source of the disturbance may well come to feature again.”
Roux’s relentless effort to discredit and unnerve Burger during cross-examination suggests that a lot of the defense’s attempt to provide reasonable doubt will hinder on two important factors: Sounds—the screams, shots and banging noises heard by witnesses on the night of the murder—and semantics. The former complicates the issue due to the fact that, because there are no actual eye-witnesses beyond Pistorius, court testimony will focus on what distant neighbors allegedly heard, and when the outcome hinges on something as precarious as the fine line between the sound of cricket bat banging on a door versus a gun shot, the statements could be particularly vulnerable to disputation. The latter deals with the fact that the witnesses, and, by extension, their statements are mostly bilingual, meaning that margin for error in the translation of the language could be far greater, something that was addressed in court today as some confusion over several Afrikaans words called the interpreter’s work into question. In any case, there will be a lot of room for both those on the stand and the legal counsel to either concede or obfuscate initials statements.
Considering that Pistorius is the only first-hand witness to what happened that night, it is crucial that whatever version his defense wishes to establish, any witnesses whose testimony discredits Pistorius’s narrative will be treated harshly. While nothing in Burger’s testimony worked particularly in Pistorius’s favor, at least ostensibly, it is also highly likely that further witnesses could provide different accounts of the sounds heard from Pistorius’ house that night. Burger was a strong and crucial witness for the state, but if the defense is able to produce enough credible witnesses to derogate from her account, then it may well just count in Pistorius’s favor.
Burger will return to the stand at the start of tomorrow’s trial.