Neverending Trial

04.17.14

Disastrous Turn By Star Witness For Pistorius Defense

On the case’s final day before a two-week break, the defense’s most recent witness was ripped apart by prosecutors, who seriously questioned his credibility.

Those working on the Oscar Pistorius murder case will get a well-deserved two-week respite from all things Oscar as the trial picks up again on May 5—and no one is more happy about the early adjournment than the defense’s most recent witness, Roger Dixon. (He wrote in a Facebook post that he was off for a beer as soon as his testimony was over.) The forensic geologist and former policeman, who was approached by the defense on the day of Pistorius’s bail hearing to help bolster the accused’s testimony, spent three days in the witness box, where he was all but devoured by the prosecution and ridiculed by the media. Both questioned his credibility after he contested the prosecution’s expert findings apparently without the necessary level of expertise to do so, and at times even contradicted the accused’s own testimony, which he was essentially hired to support.

Dixon first took the stand on Wednesday, after Pistorius was excused following five days of fierce interrogation by state prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Dixon had been asked to conduct visibility and sounds tests at the Paralympian’s SilverWood Estate home in Pretoria, ostensibly to confirm that Pistorius’s bedroom was pitch dark on the night that he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius claims that he did so accidentally, and could not see Steenkamp get out of bed because the closed curtains and lack of moonlight had plunged the room into darkness. Pistorius has pleaded “not guilty” to a charge of premeditated murder.

Dixon agreed with this account, claiming that Pistorius“couldn’t see his hand in front of his face” with all the lights off and curtains drawn on a moonless night, like that on February 14 last year. Dixon also conducted audio tests with a sound engineer to help determine the source of the second set of loud bangs that the neighbors heard that night. For those who are out of the loop, all five neighbors previously testified that the sounds they heard were gunshots, while the defense argues that they were actually the sounds of Pistorius breaking down the bathroom door with a cricket bat. The sequence of sounds heard by the neighbors is crucial to the outcome of the case, as it may determine whether or not Pistorius knew Steenkamp was in the bathroom. Dixon was presumably brought in to prove that the sounds could be easily confused.

The other serious misstep that could cast considerable doubt on Dixon’s testimony is that the geologist actually contradicted Pistorius on a several details.

His next move was to contend the state’s exposition that the abrasions on Steenkamp’s back were the result of a projectile that ricocheted off the bathroom wall.  Dixon agrued that the arrangement of bruises was consistent with the lines of the magazine rack situated next to the toilet in the bathroom, and in his “layman’s understanding” inferred that they had resulted from her body falling against it. He also seemed to think that Steenkamp had her “arm forward towards the handle” and was opening the door when she was shot, whereas the state’s ballistics expert Cpt. Christiaan Mangena had testified that she was facing the door and in a “defensive position” when Pistorius shot her.

The first oddity here is that Dixon is a geologist and mineralogist whose job is to examine soil at the University of Pretoria (he also grows Clivias and other plants, and owns a Land Rover and Trans Am, according to his Twitter bio). He admitted in court that he was not a pathologist, and that he did not have any formal training in ballistics or sound. Exactly why Dixon was attempting to contradict Mangena’s findings without the necessary qualifications quickly became a point of derision for journalists and social media users. It was also something that Nel pounced on immediately during cross-examination.

“Now, Mr. Dixon, you call yourself a layman?” Nel asked Dixon. “You gave the evidence, you were strong about it. Do you know how irresponsible it is to make inferences in areas where you’re not an expert?”

“I view myself as an expert because my testimony has been accepted in court a number of times,” Dixon replied.

Nel also found fault with the geologist’s ability to conduct a thorough examination of the scene’s lighting and sound conditions. When leading sound tests, Dixon used a slightly different ammunition to the Black Talon bullets used by the accused, and acknowledged that the sound engineer was forced to stitch together soundbites after the gun jammed several times. He also said that he “had no idea” whether the sound engineer had experience in recording explosives.

Furthermore, Dixon had failed to turn on Pistorius’s balcony light when reconstructing the scene (Pistorius claims it was on at the time of the murder), and overlooked the fact that neighboring lights could have influenced the visibility of the room at the time. He also opted to use “his eyes” as his only light measuring apparatus, something Nel quickly dismissed as “subjective.”

The other serious misstep that could cast considerable doubt on Dixon’s testimony is that the geologist actually contradicted Pistorius on a several details. Dixon insisted that the magazine rack was in place when Steenkamp was shot, however, Pistorius alleged that the police had moved the rack during the crime scene analysis.

“When the deceased fell, the magazine rack was there…I do not know what happened to it afterwards,” Dixon testified. “It wasn’t there when Mr. Pistorius went in. That is his version of the events.”

“So whatever the accused is saying, you’re saying he is wrong?” asked prosecutor Gerrie Nel. “You’re his witness!”

Dixon further apparently botched tests that were most probably intended to dispute neighbor Dr. Johan Stipp’s claim that he saw Pistorius move across the bathroom that night. Dixon presented a photo in which he used an assistant to show that Stipp could not have seen Pistorius on his stumps. Unfortunately for the defense, Dixon “overlooked and omitted” Pistorius’s height when conducting the test, which meant that his assistant, while kneeling, was a good 20cm shorter than Pistorius on his stumps. The photo was also taken from a different vantage point to the one Stipp had been in.

“Why did you not make sure that the person is the exact height as Mr Pistorius?" Nel asked.

“I am not trying to mislead the court, My Lady,” Dixon answered. “I am not suggesting that Mr. Pistorius is the same height as the man on his knees in the photograph.”

He also told the court that he had not been following the case as he did not own a television or radio and didn’t read the newspapers. According to the retweets on his Twitter account, however, it appears he had been following some of the coverage around the time that forensic expert Col Vermeulen testified on behalf of the state. The court also learned that Dixon has a Facebook account when he posted the following message before today’s testimony:

“Third day in court today. Let’s see how much of my credibility, integrity and professional reputation is destroyed. It is difficult to get belief in those who will not listen because it is not what they want to hear. After that, beer!”

The post has since been removed, but he did confirm with reporters that it was genuine, and that it was intended as “a joke.”

In another troublesome setback for the defense, AFP is reporting that Pistorius’s apparent star forensic expert, Reggie Perumal, will not testify.

Court resumes on May 5 at 3:30am ET.