/ 15 October 2014

Oscar sentencing: Defence witness ‘biased’, ‘irresponsible’

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel.

A social worker who recommended correctional supervision for Reeva Steenkamp’s killer Oscar Pistorius is biased against prisons, the high court in Pretoria heard on Wednesday.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the court that the defence witness, Annette Vergeer, a social worker and probation officer, relied on a nine-year-old speech by a union official to back up her claims on prison conditions.

The speech was made by the then general secretary of the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union, Abbey Witbooi, at a conference in February 2005, Nel told Vergeer.

Vergeer presented her report on Pistorius to the court, which the defence had paid her to compile. In it she recommended that the paralympic athlete get three years of correctional supervision and 16 hours of community service for killing Reeva Steenkamp. 

She cited prison overcrowding, understaffing and a lack of facilities for the disabled as the reasons for her recommendation. Pistorius was found guilty last month of the culpable homicide of Steenkamp, his girlfriend.

Nel asked Vergeer what Witbooi’s main concern at that conference was. “The unwillingness or inability of the department to appoint entry-level staff, as a union official would do,” he said, answering his own question. 

Nel asked her if she had sent a written request to correctional services for information on prison conditions. “I didn’t get a response to my written request. I was told they didn’t want to be exposed,” Vergeer replied. She said she interviewed an official over the phone.

Vergeer said she did not believe the double amputee would be safe or provided with the right facilities for his disability in prison. “They cannot eliminate his vulnerability and they cannot secure his safety,” she told the court.

Witness ‘irresponsible’
Nel told the court that Vergeer does not know how prisons are run. 

“What I find very interesting [is] that you want to come to court and deal with conditions in prison and you don’t know how the prison is run. How can you do that?” Nel asked her. 

“I find it so irresponsible that you would come to court and give an opinion but you don’t know anything about the correctional services department and you’re employed by another state department.” Vergeer responded: “It is an opinion My Lady, from experience.” 

Nel said it was “worrying” that Vergeer testified on conditions in prisons but did not verify information she obtained. She told the court she called the social workers’ office in a prison and spoke to a person, who did not want to be named, on the conditions but did not verify the information. 

Nel said Vergeer stated it as a fact in her report that prisons did not have facilities like baths for physical disabled people. She conceded that she never specifically asked if there were baths.

Nel asked Vergeer if she was aware that prisoners could write and request a single cell and that medical staff could also write to authorities suggesting a single cell for a prisoner. He said that there was a regulation that no medical devices, like prosthesis, be taken away from prisoners. Vergeer said she did not know that. 

“I’m just worried that you come to court as a probation officer in private business and complain about the conditions of prison, but you don’t know this,” said Nel. “My lady I don’t know every single act,” Vergeer said. She said she testified on her experience and what she had been told in interviews.

Psychological services in prisons
Prisons have the necessary facilities to deal with people who have similar disabilities to Pistorius, the court heard.

“Disability, we’ve checked, correctional services do have facilities. Psychological services, we’ve [also] checked,” Nel said.

Vergeer said there were not enough psychologists in prisons. However, Nel said that according to the law, prisoners were allowed to bring in their own psychologists. Vergeer said because of factors including Pistorius’s disability and state of mind, there were limitations placed on him. “There are limitations. There are many factors… other than his disability and state of mind like his personality, vulnerability and all other aspects,” she said. 

Vergeer admitted that she did not have any statistics on people with disabilities in prison. Nel said about 128 disabled people were incarcerated annually.

Society wants harsh punishments for killers
People will take the law into their own hands if killers get sentences like house arrest and community service, Nel told the court. 

“Society will lose trust in the judiciary. They will take the law into their own hands,” Nel told Vergeer during sentencing proceedings.

“Would you agree with me, madam, that society demands that if you kill someone there should be a harsh punishment?” Vergeer paused before answering. “I cannot dispute that, but you have to look at the circumstances, at the accused in totality.” Nel propped his foot on his chair and draped his robe over his leg. 

“The accused armed himself, walked to a bathroom, shot four times, caused a horrible death. Don’t you think society would want to punish him?” Nel asked Vergeer. “I don’t think it’s in the hands of society to punish him,” she said. “It’s totally inappropriate, it cannot be considered,” Nel said of her recommended sentence.

As he spoke Barry Roux, for Pistorius, leaned back in his chair and whispered briefly to his junior counsel sitting on either side of him. Nel rejected Vergeer’s suggestion that Pistorius be made to work with disabled children as a punishment. “For correctional supervision to be a sentence at all the person should be taken out of their comfort zone and not be doing what they have been doing all along,” Nel said. 

“He can also work at a police station,” Vergeer offered.

Bias against homosexuals
Nel referred Vergeer to a section in her report on Pistorius, where she mentioned that condoms were freely available in prisons. “Are you discriminating against consensual homosexual sex?” Nel asked her.

“It’s not that I’m against it, it’s just that people in a prison environment will be exposed to it,” she replied. “It’s just a clear indication of your bias against prisons. Is it a problem if there are condoms available in stores?” Nel asked. She said she mentioned the condoms in prisons merely to state a fact. 

“What about other facts like there is water in prisons, or gardens?” Nel countered. There were many furrowed brows in court as Vergeer gave a long, rambling answer. “The problem is there is very little privacy in prisons so people will be exposed to it [homosexual sex],” she said. Nel accused her of making sweeping statements about prison conditions and that she was against sending Pistorius to jail. 

“I’m not sending the accused to prison. I can only provide an opinion to the court,” she said. – Sapa