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Pistorius: the problem with witnesses

Phillip De Wet

The impossible problem of human fallibility courts face has been vividly illustrated in the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

Speculation on Oscar Pistorius swirled, shifted, and circled, with much by way of opinion but nothing approaching consensus. (AFP)

If the trial schedule holds up, and new regulations on judgment are upheld, the high court in Pretoria will have to pronounce Oscar Pistorius guilty or not guilty before the middle of the year, in a judgment that will deeply affect two families.

If the system works as it is supposed to, the court will have well-tested arguments from both defence and prosecution to ponder, and as much detail on physical evidence as can be had. It will also, it seems, get to hear from the accused himself, the only person who actually knows what transpired on the night Reeva Steenkamp died.

But given the circumstantial nature of the case, the court may also have to rely on the testimony of people who were jerked out of sleep to be confronted by crisis and confusion, and to piece together a sequence of events from what they saw and heard.

And as proceedings on Thursday showed, that can be a difficult job.

State witness Johan Stipp on Thursday confidently testified that he heard two different instances of gunfire from Pistorius's home on the night he shot Steenkamp, sounds that he reported as very similar.

The defence begs to differ; as with previous witnesses defence advocate Barry Roux tried to convince Stipp that some of the sounds he heard was gunfire, while some of it was the sound of a cricket bat hitting a door.

Satisfied
Yet the defence team gave every appearance of being satisfied that in virtually every other respect the testimony of Stipp actually bolstered its arguments. Stipp’s credibility was not under attack, Roux assured him several times. Though Stipp will return for further cross-examination on Friday, there was no sign that the defence team would argue Stipp had poor hearing, a poor memory, or a malicious motive. The defence does, however, believe that Stipp mistook the sound of wood hitting wood for the sound of a bullet being fired from a handgun.

Though it was not yet clear exactly what the prosecution will argue happened on that fateful night, it seems likely to do roughly the same. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel argued a different sequence of events on Thursday, saying that the second set of sounds Stipp heard rather than the first must have included gunshots – but objective evidence shows Pistorius fired only four shots, making it implausible that Stipp could have heard nothing but gunfire.

The implications had the large group of journalists and small groups of friends and family members scratching their heads. What, then, had actually happened? And does it or does it not indicate motive on the part of Pistorius? Speculation swirled, shifted, and circled, with much by way of opinion but nothing approaching consensus.

The court, of course, does not have the option to shrug its shoulders and pronounce events confused. Somewhere in the contradictions it must find a narrative, and a decision.


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