Oscar Trial – Day 2, March 4 BURGER, ESTELLE VAN DER MERWE, JOHNSON

Michelle Burger is on the stand again today and Barry Roux has pretty much the same line of questioning. He is trying to make it seem like the witness made false assumptions about what she heard that night. He also challenged her on her ability to hear what she heard from so far away, with Reeva being in a closed bathroom. He challenged the prosecution to do a sound test to see if it’s possible to hear the screams that far away. Mrs. Burger points out that new homes have since been built in between them so sound would not carry the same. We have yet to see if the Prosecution has done any sound testing.

Another point of contention between them is that Mrs. Burger states that the last scream she heard from the woman was approximately 1 or maybe 2 seconds at the most after the last shot. She can’t say exactly when it was but it was immediately after the last shot and then faded off. Roux read a portion of the official statement detailing Reeva’s wounds and states that based on her head injury it would be impossible for her to have any cognitive function after the last gunshot therefore it would have been impossible for her to be screaming at that time. Roux and Nel exchange some words about the sequence of shots and when she was shot in the head, which will be argued at a later time in the trial.

Another interesting moment between Mrs. Burger and Roux was when Roux pushed her on why a male would be yelling for help while the woman was also yelling for help, and Mrs. Burger suggests that perhaps it was “mockery” on behalf of the man. She states that Roux will need to pose that question to Oscar, only he can answer that. It was a pretty bold come back and food for thought. Both Mrs. Burger and her husband Mr. Johnson, who testified later in the day, did state that the man’s shout was more subdued than the woman’s.

Mrs. Burger is again questioned about whether or not she knows what a cricket bat sounds like banging on a door. She says no but she is very sure that what she heard was gunshots. After Roux finishes with her, Gerrie Nel asks her how she would try to break down a door with a cricket bat. She says she would hit it then pull the bat backwards and swing at it again to hit, indicating that there would be some lag time in between hits. So then he asks her if in the time frame that she heard shots number 2 thru 4, does it seem feasible that the sound is comparable to somebody swinging a large bat back and forth and she answers no.

Nel concludes by asking her if she properly conveyed her emotions about how traumatic the screams were that night to the investigator when he took her statement and she breaks down in tears and said yes she did. She said her emotion was very raw. Roux asks her one last time if she saw her husband’s statement while she was speaking with detective Van Aardt and she says no. Michelle Burger is then excused.

The next witness up is Estelle van der Merwe. She lives in Silverwood Estates and is a neighbor of Oscar’s. She did not know him, nor had ever met him, but was aware that he lived in the house across the road. Her husband has spoken directly to Oscar in the past.

She is house # 180 at the bottom of the picture.

OP neighborhood

Also, here is an aerial photo of their home. Oscar’s house is circled in red. The van der Mewre home is the blue one across the street to the left (from this view.) The white balcony that is seen in the front of the house on the 2nd floor is their bedroom balcony.

van der mewre blue house across street

Mrs. van der Merwe, her husband and her child were home on the evening of February 13, 2013, and went to bed around 9pm. In the morning hours she was awakened around 1:56am by the loud voice of somebody who sounded like they were in a fight. It was a woman’s voice which lasted for about an hour. Mrs. van der Mewre was irritated by this and had to put a pillow over her head in the hopes of getting some sleep. At one point she did get up to see if she could see anything outside but did not, so she went back to bed.

Below are pictures of the view from their bedroom balcony. The first white home that can be seen on the left is the home of Mr. Nhlengethwa. Oscar’s house is just past that.

van der mewre bedroom balcony

van der mewre bedroom balcony2

Sometime around 3am, she heard 4 banging sounds. After these banging sounds there was total silence. She asked her husband what he thought the sounds were and he said gunshots. Her husband looked out the window but didn’t see anything so went back to bed. Shortly afterwards they heard a commotion so her husband called security. After that call, they heard somebody crying loudly. Mrs. van der Merwe thought it was the lady crying but her husband said it was Oscar crying. She later got up and saw several vehicles, including an ambulance, outside of Oscar’s house.

Her husband called security the next morning to find out what happened. They told him that Oscar had shot his friend.

Mrs. van der Merwe also heard loud shouting voices coming from Oscar’s house on February 21st of this year. She believed it to be the voices of two males.

Roux gets up to cross-examine. He explains to Mrs. van de Merwe that on February 21, 2014, they were conducting tests from Oscar’s house at 2-3am of both a man and a woman screaming to see who could hear it to prepare for trial. He only briefly covers this topic as I don’t think he expected her to testify that she heard those screams a few weeks ago, but she did. Roux tells her that Oscar’s bedroom is on the opposite side of the house that faces their balcony and there’s no way she could have properly heard what she thought she heard.

Of course, it’s possible that Oscar and Reeva could have been arguing in a different part of the house, not just in the bedroom.

He then questions her about the events of February 14, 2013. He asks her what the time frame was between when she last heard the female’s voice and when she heard the 4 shots. She states she can’t remember. She stated that the voice was not consistently shouting/speaking loudly for an entire hour, it was intermittent. She also could not make out what the woman was saying or in which language she was speaking. But she does reiterate that the voice sounded angry.

Roux puts to her that she cannot say that she heard the female’s voice shortly before the shots and she agrees.

It’s possible that the argument has now moved to the bedroom/bathroom area which is on the other side of the house. That may be why she is only hearing the arguing intermittently, because they are moving inside. We know that Reeva was shot in the bathroom so it’s possible that Mrs. van der Merwe may not have heard the final screams before the shots like Burger and Johnson did. Burger and Johnson’s bedroom faced Oscar’s bathroom area whereas the van der Mewre’s bedroom faces the front of his house.

Roux also asks her if after the gunshots she said anything to her husband about the earlier voice that she thought was in an argument. She says that she did not. Roux asks her why and she says because she wasn’t sure where the voice was coming from so she didn’t say anything.

She did not go to check on her son nor did she go outside afterwards to check out what happened. The incident that night frightened her and she didn’t know what to do so they just stayed in the bedroom. She says she was paralyzed with fear.

Nel does a brief reexamination and asks her how she can tell the difference between a man and woman’s voice. She states that a woman’s voice is higher pitched and a man’s voice has more bass.

Nel also asks her at what point did she finally tell her husband about the angry female voice that she heard before the shots. Mrs. van der Mewre states that after she heard that Oscar shot his girlfriend, she told her husband what she heard that night.

Mrs. van der Merwe concludes by saying prior to that night she had never heard a gunshot before and hearing those sounds really startled her. The witness is excused.

The next witness up is Charl Johnson. He is the husband of previous witness Michelle Burger and is an IT Project Manager. In the early morning hours of February 14, 2013, he heard the screams of a woman and was awakened. He lifted his head from his pillow to make sure that he heard what he thought he heard. When he realized they were screams, he jumped out of bed and ran to the balcony. He heard more screaming from the woman who was clearly in distress. At some point he heard the woman scream “help.” He then heard a man’s voice yell “help” three times.

At that point his wife said to her husband that they should call security. He came inside and they called from her cell phone where she already had a security phone number stored. He believed he was speaking to the security for the Silver Stream Estates where they lived. It was his intention to have them radio over to the Silverwood security next door to inform them that somebody was possibly being attacked in their home, possibly a home break. But it turned out that the security number they called was for security at a previous residence they lived in. His wife apparently had never programmed the new security number in to her phone. So they terminated the call.

Mr. Johnson went back to the balcony after that and heard the woman screaming again. At that point the intensity and the fear in her voice escalated and it was clear that she was in danger. He then heard the gun shots. During the session of shots, he heard the lady scream again. Her last scream faded away moments after the last gunshot was fired. He believed he may have heard 5-6 shots and that is what he reported to the police. He now knows that there were only 4 shots. He states he did not count them as they happened, he estimated what he heard. He did notice a small pause after the first shot, but the remaining shots were fired in close succession.

He then returned to the bedroom very alarmed. His wife said to him that she thought that woman’s husband may have just been shot in front of her. She came to that conclusion based on the screaming that they heard before and during the gunfire. He does not recall any other sounds or noises after that. Mr. Johnson and Mrs. Burger sat on their bed for a bit upset by what they had just heard. They didn’t speak much after that and then attempted to sleep a little bit more. He does recall hearing a security vehicle in the distance and assumed that somebody else over in that estate would have contacted security for help.

While laying in bed, Mr. Johnson started thinking about their own security and got up at 4am to measure his doors downstairs, laid back down in bed afterwards and got up at 5am. He got to work early at 6am and researched security doors online for their home. He did ask their front security guard on the way out of the complex that morning if he knew what happened over at Silverwood the night before and was told that they were aware that something had happened but they weren’t exactly certain what it was.

Mr. Johnson called a friend that morning and recited to him the same story that he is reciting in court. His friend said he would ask around to see if he could find out what happened and would call him back. Mr. Johnson then told some co-workers what had happened that evening. Afterwards, he got a call back from his friend who asked him to repeat his story, which he did. The friend then said he was hesitant to spread potential rumors but that he had heard that Oscar Pistorius had accidentally shot his girlfriend. It was difficult for Mr. Johnson to understand the story that was being told to him being that they really thought somebody was being attacked based on what they heard the night before.

After that call, he went back to speak with his co-workers and relayed to them the call he just had. During that time frame, one of the co-workers saw the story on the news. Mr. Johnson then called his wife. He asked her to relay to him what she remembered, which she did. He then told her that he had heard it was Oscar Pistorius involved in the incident with his girlfriend. They were both equally surprised to hear that it was a domestic violence type incident since they really believed it was some type of house break attack based on the screams.

They continued to watch coverage throughout the day and saw some aerial footage of the area on TV. He was surprised to see how close they actually were located to where Oscar Pistorius lived.

Here is an aerial view of Oscar’s home and surrounding estate area.

OP aerial view of home

When he got home after work he went up on to his rooftop so that he could see over the neighbor’s trees, and he was able to see Oscar’s house from there. He took a photo from there to document the distance. He then went on to Google Earth to measure the distance from his home to Oscar’s home.

He also spoke to his neighbor next door to see if he had heard anything the night before. The neighbor stated that they only woke up during the last gunshot. They think they may have missed the other noises because they had a ceiling fan on in their room which created a humming noise.

Nel then moved on to ask him how they came about giving a statement to the police. Mr. Johnson stated that they initially did not want to get involved. He assumed that there would be other neighbors who were much closer to the incident that would testify and they would not be needed. As more information came out in the media, they realized that there were no other witnesses nearby Oscar’s home that were coming forth.

On February 19th, 2013, the day of the bail hearing, Mr. Johnson ran in to one of their neighbors who lived over in Silverwood. He asked her if she had heard anything that night. She stated no but believed it was probably because they have air conditioning and were using it that night which probably flushed out any noises.

Mr. Johnson and his wife then listened to Oscar’s bail proceeding on the radio that day and heard the defense lawyer state that the only scream that came from Oscar’s house that night was from the accused. Mr. Johnson heard something different that night and felt obliged to come forward and tell his version. Because this was such a highly publicized case he and his wife did not want to go straight to the police fearing the publicity. They wanted to be quiet about it. So Mrs. Burger contacted an advocate friend who advised them to make notes of everything they each remembered. This advocate stated that he knows Mr. Nel and would contact him to provide their statements. A few days later the investigating team came to their home to speak with them. A week later, detective Van Aardt came out and they gave official statements that were used for an affidavit.

Court was then adjourned for the day. Mr. Johnson will be back tomorrow for cross-examination.

Oscar Trial – Day 1, March 3 BURGER

Today was the first day that Reeva’s mother, June Steenkamp, came face to face with Oscar Pistorius. She has never met him before and sadly her first time is at the murder trial of her daughter. June has made it publically known that she wants this opportunity to really look him in the eyes and understand what happened that night. Oscar arrived at 9:52am and enters the court having to walk past the family members. June is the blonde woman, second from the right. He does not return her glances.

Oscar Pistorius

Oscar takes some time to speak with his lawyer, Barry Roux, before the proceedings.

OP Barry Roux & OP

The trial proceedings will be in English, but some of the witnesses would like to speak in their native Afrikaans, therefore they have appointed an interpreter to assist during the proceedings. At the start of the day, the appointed interpreter arrives and sees the frenzy of media that is covering the case and basically freaks out. So they need to get that situation under control first.

In the meantime, a woman by the name of Annemarie, who is the ex-wife of the surgeon who amputated Oscar’s legs as a child, interrupts the court with her insistence that Oscar be checked out mentally as he may have acted out due to problems from a head injury. This is not the first time that Annemarie has interrupted their court hearings insisting that he be examined. She is promptly escorted out.

The first day of a trial is always interesting to say the least. Once they ironed out all of the issues, the trial started two hours late. (Side note: they get to take two tea breaks in addition to lunch break during the trial day. We really need to start having tea breaks in America.)

The charges against Oscar are read and he enters his pleas. He pleads not guilty to murder. He also pleads not guilty to other gun related charges that have been added on to this trial. The gun charges are unrelated to the death of Reeva, but they help the prosecution paint a picture of Oscar being a gun-crazed man. In one incident, he allegedly fired a gun in to a restaurant. In another incident he allegedly shot a gun out of the sunroof of a car. From what I have come to understand, this is standard practice in South Africa to pile on multiple charges for multiple incidents. This would not happen in American courts where each offense would need to be tried separately.

Now typically in American courts the trial would start with formal opening statements from each side, the Prosecution going first. That does not happen here. Kenny Oldwage for the Defense entered their explanation first. Then Gerrie Nel outlines briefly some of the details of the Prosecution’s case second and presents some evidence to be catalogued. It was all somewhat brief and informal.

The first witness up is Michelle Burger. She is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. Her house borders the Silverwood Estates where Oscar lived. She is about 170 meters away in a community called the Silver Stream Estates. The Burger’s bedroom window faces the back side of Oscar’s home (where the bathroom windows are located) and their window was open that night due to it being very hot and not having air conditioning.

This picture shows Oscar’s house on the right and the Silver Stream Estates on the left. The red box depicts the section that Mrs. Burger and her husband live in. She described their home as being in the front row, closest to the border of Silverwood Estates. Their bedroom is located up on the 2nd floor. In the middle of the night, with windows open and no fans, it does seem likely to me that they would be able to hear loud noises coming from that direction.

silver stream estates

On the night of February 13, 2013, she and her husband were home and went to bed between 9pm and 10pm. Both she and her husband were awakened at 3am by the sound of a woman screaming very loudly. Her husband went to the balcony while she stayed sitting up in bed. The woman was screaming for help. And then they heard a man’s voice also scream for help 3 times. Mrs. Burger called her husband back inside and had him call security from her cell phone which was next to their bed. He spoke with two different guards who informed him that they did not cover security in the neighboring community so they hung up. Her husband then went back to the balcony while she still remained in bed and the woman’s screaming was now getting progressively worse. She described it as blood-curdling, like somebody who was in fear for her life. After hearing the woman’s escalated screams they then heard 4 shots. There was a noticeable pause after the first shot and then 3 additional shots rang out. There was some screaming throughout the duration of the shots, but it became quiet after that. They did not hear anything else. The husband came back in from the balcony. Their assumption was that a woman and a man were being attacked by someone who broke in to their home. Mrs. Burger even made the statement to her husband that she hoped the woman wasn’t witnessing her husband being shot in front of her.

She and her husband eventually went back to bed and then got up and went to work the next day. She called a friend to tell them about the events from the previous night. She also talked to a few co-workers about what they witnessed. Her husband called her in the afternoon to ask her if she remembered what happened. She replied yes, she did remember. He then told her that Oscar Pistorius was on the news and was saying that he mistakenly shot somebody he thought was an intruder. The husband immediately thought that wasn’t right because it didn’t match what they had heard. They eventually hired an attorney because they wanted to handle the matter privately and go to the police privately considering the intense media coverage. Apparently it was a few weeks after the event when they gave their statement and some have viewed that as suspicious.

Barry Roux then cross-examines Mrs. Burger and tries to paint the picture that from the very start of this event, the Burgers considered Oscar to be a liar. And also accuses her of comparing stories with her husband to get their testimony straight before going to the police. Michelle was pretty solid on the stand after several hours and stuck to her testimony. Stated that she is only testifying to what she heard, she had no pre-conceived notions about Oscar, they did not know Oscar, and she is only stating what she heard and what she heard does not match Oscar’s story. She also reiterates that she and her husband are each individually giving their own statements. He will have his opportunity to testify in court just as she is. Their stories do not match word for word. They are each giving their own accounts of what they heard/witnessed that night.

Roux suggests to Mrs. Burger that the screaming she heard could have been Oscar’s high-pitched screaming that made him sound like a woman, and that in fact it was not a woman at all. She was very adamant back to him that she clearly heard two different voices initially screaming. One was a man and one was a woman. She did not waiver on that at all. She said the sound of the woman’s screams was extremely traumatic and was different than the man’s utterances of help three times. She has no doubt in her mind that it was a woman.

Barry Roux also suggested that the 4 gunshots that she heard could have actually been the cricket bat hitting the door. He needs to find a way to explain why the Burgers heard a woman screaming prior to the gunshot sounds. According to Oscar, Reeva never responded to him that night. There was no fight between them that night and he blindly shot at what he thought was an intruder. So a woman screaming is a big problem for his defense. Roux is trying to convince this witness that she and her husband slept through the initial gunshots, and that the screams that woke them were those of Oscar’s and the other loud sounds were the cricket bat. But the witness stuck to her story all day regardless of the relentless questioning and never waivered to what Barry Roux was suggesting.

Roux pushes on… If Mrs. Burger is so sure that she clearly heard gunshots and screams, why did she not also hear the cricket bat banging on the door afterwards? Her explanation is that she is too far away to hear that. She is also too far away to hear regular talking. Now this will come down to some scientific testing, I would think. It seems that high pitched screaming and gun shots would have a different sound wave capability than wood hitting on wood. But that’s just my own speculation. I’m sure the Prosecution will address this. Mrs. Burger again was clear that she did not hear a cricket bat banging on wood after the gunshots. She only heard screams and then 4 gunshots and that’s all.

Roux next criticizes her for going back to bed after such a traumatic event. She states that she was indeed very upset that night by what she had heard. She didn’t immediately go to sleep, but at some point she did fall asleep again. She states that she can sleep during difficult times. She recalls how her sister just recently lost her baby and she was able to sleep that night. It’s not impossible for her to sleep when upset.

Next, Roux suggested that she was being more dramatic about the event in court than she was in her original statement to Van Aardt (the detective who took her statement). She stated that she very clearly expressed her emotions of that night to Van Aardt and he wrote what he wrote. Apparently he did not include “blood-curdling” in his description so Roux wants to make it sound like she is overly stating the sounds of the screams that were heard that night now that she is on the stand.

They adjourn for the day and she will be back on the stand tomorrow.