World

03.05.14

Pistorius Pal: We Covered For Him

On day three of Oscar Pistorius’s murder trial, in a surprise appearance on the witness stand, a friend testified that he had taken the fall for the athlete during a public shooting incident a month before Steenkamp’s death.

Day three of the Oscar Pistorius trial was both brief and peppered with interruptions as issues with the media, last-minute requests for evidence and one (somewhat) surprise witness caused a two-hour lag in proceedings, and arguably a headache for both sets of counsel. The first witness of the day, Mr. Charl Johnson (the husband of previous witness, Dr. Michelle Burger) returned to testify following a brief start in court yesterday. Johnson, an IT designer, had mentioned that he had been bombarded with messages from officious members of public, and presumably, international news outlets (he received a phone call from an ‘overseas person’) the previous evening, after his cellphone number was read out in court on Tuesday. “My privacy has been compromised severely,” he said.

 This on its own puts the issue of media taping, a first in South Africa’s legal history, under the spotlight: If a similar incident were to occur going forward, it could ultimately discourage one of the dozens of the witnesses expected to testify, firstly because of the possible intrusion of the public, and secondly, because if witnesses did manage to the view or gain knowledge of earlier broadcasts , they could be deterred by the idea of going head-to-head with Pistorius’s advocate, Barry Roux SC.

Johnson was noticeably more nervous than his wife, whom many legal professionals had applauded for being indomitable despite the fact that she finally broke down in tears in the final moments of her testimony. Roux’s strategy, as with the previous two days, was to pick apart the nuances of Johnson’s testimony, inferring that the similarities between Burger’s testimony and what Johnson had said could suggest that the two had colluded with each other between the bail hearing and the trial date. “Remarkable coincidences,” Roux had called them, suggesting that Johnson and Burger might as well “have stood in the box together.” Johnson’s responded that it was hardly a coincidence that “two people standing 10 meters apart would describe what they're seeing with similar words.”

According to Lerena, Pistorius apologized profusely, before asking Fresco to take the fall for him to avoid unwanted media attention.

While Johnson maintained that he had not seen his wife’s statement nor her testimony, he did tell the court that he had taken notes on his laptop, at the advice of his lawyers, a piece of information that disrupted court proceedings momentarily as Roux and his team made a request to obtain those notes and pinpoint the exact time they were created.

This led to the first impromptu adjournment. The second delay occurred when the defense asked for a two-hour break to prepare after the state excused Johnson, who went off in search of his iPad, and called professional boxer—and Pistorius’s one-time lunch buddy—Kevin Lerena to the stand, a move that the defense had not expected.

Lerena testified about the public shooting incident that occurred at Tasha’s restaurant in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg on January 11, 2013, about a month before Steenkamp’s death. He had joined Pistorius and two other friends at the popular lunch spot, and allegedly nearly lost a foot when Pistorius accidentally shot off a gun that one of the men, Darren Fresco, had passed to him under the table (the bullet narrowly missed Lerena’s foot, although shrapnel from the blast reportedly grazed him).According to Lerena, Pistorius apologized profusely, before asking Fresco to take the fall for him to avoid unwanted media attention. Jason and Maria Loupis, owners of Tasha’s and the third and fourth witnesses respectively, confirmed that they had heard a gunshot and that Fresco did take the blame when they confronted him.

While it’s difficult to say where the Tasha’s narrative will go in the next few days, it is evident that timing, and the order of events on the night of the shooting, is still absolutely crucial for the defense at this point. Johnson had mentioned that he and his wife had heard shots fired at 3:17am, two and a half minutes before Pistorius had allegedly phonedhis friend JustinStander after breaking down the bathroom door, a point that Roux immediately pounced on by suggesting that, if Johnson could make out the sounds of a gun but didn’t hear the cricket bat, which Pistorius claimed he had used before calling Stander, then what Johnson and Burger heard simply had to be the sound of the bat against the door. It’s probably the first window of doubt that Roux has managed to create thus far, although any number of witnesses who take the stand in the next two weeks could dispute any sort of argument Pistorius’s counsel is trying to build. Likewise, they could bolster it. Only time will tell.