Friday, April 18, 2014
Shouldn't The Defense DEFEND the Defendant?
PRETORIA, South Africa – The placement of a magazine rack. That was at issue in the Oscar Pistorius trial Thursday, the final day before a two-week recess.
On the stand for a third day was Roger Dixon, a forensic consultant for the defense. A day earlier, state prosecutor Gerrie Nel ripped into Dixon's testimony, questioning his expertise, credentials and integrity. Thursday, Nel honed in on the placement of a magazine rack inside the toilet room where Reeva Steenkamp was when she was shot four times by Pistorius.
You can see where the blood pooled around the foot, Dixon told the court, gesturing at a photograph, showing that "when the deceased fell, the magazine rack was there."
This is a direct contradiction to Pistorius' version of events, where he clearly described the magazine rack being against the wall in the toilet, declaring that he found Steenkamp in the middle of the blood pool – where the magazine rack was pictured in police photographs.
"I do not know what happened to [the magazine rack] afterwards," Dixon testified. "It wasn't there when Mr. Pistorius went in. That is his version of the events."
It is a seemingly minor detail, but it goes along with the prosecution's attempt to discredit Pistorius' version of what happened on the night he shot and killed Steenkamp.
The Paralympian is charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, who he shot four times through a closed door in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013. The emotional athlete maintains that he believed her to be an intruder, and that it was a tragic accident.
Dixon, a former senior forensic expert with the police for some 18 years, was contacted by Pistorius' defense and paid to conduct his own investigation into the sequence of events that left Steenkamp dead. His first private case, Dixon has insisted that he is merely presenting his findings, not testifying as to "who is right or wrong."
"So you've now showed us that the accused was incorrect in his version that the magazine rack was not moved," Nel told Dixon.
The inconsistency adds to the prosecution's incremental strategy of highlighting every instance where the athlete's account may be improbable – questioning his intent and credibility.
Dixon, a trained geologist who describes his expertise as "putting it all together," told the court of his attempt to reconstruct the sequence of events.
He says Steenkamp was struck by the first bullet in the hip – which the state concurs on – and the "incapacitating blow" made her "immediately unstable," at which point she began falling, the next three bullets hitting her in the arm, her finger webbing and then her head, as she "just collapsed on the ground," hitting the magazine rack on her way down.
As Dixon described her movements, Pistorius covered his ears.
Humans have different responses to stimuli, the forensic expert said, comparing being shot to being stung by a bee.
"When you hear a loud noise, you jerk or, if you are a different kind of person, you say 'what was that' and don't move," Dixon explained, insinuating that Steenkamp may not have immediately screamed.
Pistorius has said, upon realizing after firing the four shots that his girlfriend was not in bed, he shouted for help, then put on his prostheses and tried to kick down the locked toilet door, before breaking it with a cricket bat. The prosecution's forensic team has suggested he was on his stumps when trying to break down the toilet door.
Dixon testified that fibers on a mark on the door appear to have come from the double-amputee's sock, worn over his prosthetic leg. Using laboratory analysis, he also matched the dark smear on the sole of Pistorius' prosthetic foot to the varnish on the door, suggesting that he kicked it with significant force.
Under questioning by Nel, the scientist admitted that he did not test varnish on any of the other doors in Pistorius' home, but pointed out that an accidental "stumble" against any of them would not have the sufficient force to leave such a mark on the athlete's prostheses.
It was not the only such forensic test the prosecution contested.
The defense consultant conducted several tests at Pistorius' home, to determine the amount of light in the athlete's bedroom when the curtains are drawn and the visibility of a person in his bathroom viewed through the window – as neighbor Johan Stipp testified.
Dixon concluded that the murder-accused's room is almost "pitch black" – supporting Pistorius' assertion that he did not see Steenkamp get out of bed – and that in order for the Paralympian to be easily visible from the bathroom, he would have had to be wearing his prostheses – which matches his account.
Under cross-examination however, Dixon admitted that the kneeling model used in his visibility test was 20 centimeters shorter than Pistorius on his stumps, and said he made his findings based on a view of the bathroom from ground level, rather than a first-floor height, as Stipp testified.
For the light tests, the expert said they did not turn on Pistorius' balcony light – failing to fully reconstruct the scene on Valentine's morning – did not make note of any other surrounding light sources in the neighborhood, and chose not to use any equipment to take light readings, favoring instead their own eyes. "But that's subjective," protested Nel.
The prosecutor also challenged the accuracy of the sound tests conducted – comparing the sound of a door being hit with a cricket bat and gunshots – suggesting that the bat sounds could have been amplified by a sound engineer to sound more similar to the shots. Dixon said he didn't know, but pointed out that the "rangemaster" of the firing range where the tests were conducted – who hears gunshots extremely often - got the two sounds confused while the tests were ongoing.
Nel's vicious interrogation has spawned dozens of internet memes, and Dixon's crucifixion by social media. The forensic expert said he'd been receiving hate mail for his involvement in the case.
"Today was a breeze," Dixon said shrugging after his second day of cross-examination by Nel.
The expert witness' comment to reporters, made as he left the courtroom, was remarkably nonchalant for the consultant, who began his day with a Facebook post:
"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!"
Asked about his opinion of Nel's ferocious cross-examination technique, Dixon seemed unfazed. "It's his reputation. The pit bull. What does a pit bull do? It bites."
"Did it hurt?" a journalist asked.
"No," Dixon said laughing. "Sometimes you feel a little bit irritated if people don't want to understand."
"He [Nel] was in a bad mood [Wednesday] because my evidence, in my opinion, contradicted him," Dixon told Yahoo Sports. "He tried to break me down, but I'm not that kind of person."
The case has been adjourned until May 5, allowing counsel to continue work on other cases, as well as have an Easter break.
When it resumes, the defense will continue to present its case.