It is clear at this stage that there are three definitive subsets of testimony starting to emerge as the Oscar Pistorius trial progresses. The most obvious is the testimony surrounding details of the night of the murder, given by neighbors and security personnel in close proximity to Pistorius’s house at Silverwood Estate. Soon, perhaps as early as next Monday, we’ll start to hear details regarding forensics and police records, which will either serve to substantiate or undermine those accounts (or render them completely useless, given the fact that the South African police apparently botched the crime scene so spectacularly). Yet the third category could be the most interesting of all—the one in which friends of Pistorius, friends of Steenkamp, acquaintances, ex-girlfriends and girlfriend’s exes could take the stand, all with their own peripheral perceptions and past stories, all there to help determine two aspects that could influence the outcome of the case: The establishment of Pistorius’s character, and the perception of his relationship with Steenkamp.
There were three witnesses on the stand on Friday. Following his testimony on Thursday, Dr. Johan Stipp, a radiologist and neighbor who had heard sounds emanating from the estate on the night of the shooting and drove over to provide assistance, reappeared to continue his testimony. The last, Silverwood Estate security guard Pieter Baba, gave his account of how they entered Pistorius’s house on hearing noises, and recalled his shock upon seeing Pistorius carrying Steenkamp’s body down the stairs.
Between the two, the state called upon Samantha Taylor, whom many journalists and viewers have been anxious to hear from, specifically because she is the first of several women close to the accused that could either shame or spare him on the stand. Taylor and Pistoriusbegan dating in 2011, when she was just 17 years old. They broke up after Pistorius allegedly cheated on her with Steenkamp. As Taylor’s deposition progressed, the court got a pretty thorough idea of what it could be like to date the Olympic icon—and it sounded like a soap opera.
According to Taylor, Pistorius cheated on her. According to the defense, she said she cheated on him. Allegedly he fired shots out of a car sunroof after being rebuked by a policeman and waved a gun at a white Mercedes that he believed was pursuing the two of them. He allegedly screamed at her and her loved ones on numerous occasions, although not in the high-pitched womanly voice as suggested by the defense. He also, Taylor said, slept with his gun by his bed every night.
‘Allegedly’ and ‘apparently’ are the operative words here, but if what Taylor says is true, it paints a very bleak picture of a man whose freedom could very well rest on his history with women.Women’s rights have become a very present theme outside the North Gauteng High Court, where members of the ANC Women’s League are picketing in solidarity with Steenkamp’s family, whom Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane joined in the courthouse earlier in the week to show emotional support (Or so she claims. The fact that it is an election year in South Africa is, of course, purely coincidental.)
The list of women who feature in the Pistorius-Steenkamp story is long, and many of them could certainly be called upon, or at least mentioned, during the trial. There’s Erin Stear, who was rumored to be having a relationship with Pistorius while he was with Steenkamp. Then there is former girlfriend Melissa Rom, who could strengthen Taylor’s testimony if she recounts similar experiences. Finally, there are Steenkamp’s best friends SamGreyvensteinand Gina Meyers, who aren’t expected to side with Pistorius’s version of events anytime soon.
As a witness, Taylor was neither confident nor steadfast. She is still young, got nervous and lacked a certain gravitas crucial of a solid witness. Too much of her testimony was prefaced with ‘I think’, which was easy enough for Pistorius’s lawyer Barry Roux to dispute.
Despite all this, her testimony was gripping. She told the court that Pistorius would sleep on the right-hand side of the bed (he claimed to have slept on the left on the night of the shooting). She mentioned that he was never without his cellphone or gun at night, and that he often kept the curtains slightly parted to let the morning light in on days that he needed to be up at 5 am to train. She also recounted the handful of times that Pistorius, noticeably unsettled and potentially vulnerable, had woken her up in the middle of the night to confirm whether or not she had heard strange noises. It is the first time we’ve been introduced to a witness who, through her own intimate experiences with the accused, could offer the best simulation of that fateful night, and thus allow the court to draw a degree of comparison. She is also one of few women in this case, besides Rom and possibly Stear, who may have engaged with Pistorius in a way that was similar to that of the victim, and may have already exposed to less-than-flattering details that could come back to bite Pistorius and his defense.
Right now, these personal narratives are what will make this trial truly fascinating, simply because it plays so well to the public sentiment. Legally speaking, character evidence isn’t admissible in criminal cases under South Africa law. The country also abolished their jury system in 1969 under apartheid, so the final verdict is in the hands of Judge Thokozile Masipa, an experienced high court judge who is highly unlikely to be swayed by Pistorius’s star power.But judges are human, just like everyone else, which is most likely why the prosecution’s pushing the angle as aggressively as they are.
Character doesn’t hold a candle to concrete evidence in court, but in this case, where the allegations have yet to be proven and where there is a lot of ‘he said, she said, they said’ to go on, character now forms a huge grey area that could work for or against both sides. Much of what Taylor said on Friday left room for interpretation: Did Pistorius point a gun at the white Mercedes as a result of his temper or because he was trying to protect Taylor? Similarly, the defense suggested that Taylor had only heard him scream in anger and not in distress, but even then, what we’re left with is a picture of man who shouted violently at his girlfriend.
It is not certain what sort of character sketch we’ll see as more and more witnesses take the stand, but it is evident that both sides have to move extremely cautiously to swing those character testimonies to their respective advantages: to establish whether Pistorius is a reckless, verbally abusive, trigger-happy bully with a heightened perception of threat, or a perpetually nervous, loving boyfriend who simply made a mistake.