Saturday, April 19, 2014

Expert for the Defence Sounds Off @ Pistorius Trial

“(Does) that accord with the test that you attended?”

Defence lawyer Barry Roux, wily veteran of over three decades in the South African legal system, puts this key question to a suited figure in the witness box of Courtroom GD,  North Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, SA.

Roger Dixon, billed as an eminent forensic expert, part of the “dream team” expected to defend Roux’s client, Oscar Pistorius, addresses the High Court’s presiding Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa and replies in the affirmative:

“My Lady, the first ones were the cricket bat at 60 and 180 and the second ones were the gunshots at 60 and 80, yes.”

Dixon corrects himself re the last number, “60 and 180.” (not 80) “Thank you, my lady, no further questions,” concludes lawyer Roux.

(This exchange is found starting at 11:28 in the embedded video below. Should this vid not be viewable on your browser or player - you'll find it on YouTube @ )

In the wee hours of February 14, 2013, a young woman, Reeva Steenkamp, was shot to death, in the tiled toilet cubicle of an home bathroom, by Pistorius, the man she’d been dating since November 2012.

Earlier in the killer’s trial, witnesses testified hearing, on that tragic Valentine’s Day, a woman’s scream, described as “blood-curdling” by one neighbour, gun-shots, and voices of a man and woman.

Countering this “ear-witness” testimony, Oscar Pistorius says that only he screamed during the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. His legal counsel takes the position that neighbours have confused the sounds of gun-shots with the sound of a cricket bat hitting the bathroom door. Further, and contrary to testimony from experts for the state, the defence says that those gun-shots which did occur happened in such rapid succession as to not allow for the woman’s scream heard to intervene.

(Explanations are continually evolving in this case. Some of the versions and scenarios put forward seem impossible to reasonably convey. Best to hear them verbatim from those testifying – and, full credit to a refreshingly open decision by the SA judiciary, the trial is being broadcast to the world, enabling all with an interest to gain independent insight and understanding. Check YouTube for documentary and news videos, and Google for the numerous websites in SA and elsewhere that are showing proceedings live and hosting archival video of each day in court.)

Setting out to prove a case of mistaken hearing by the neighbours to the killing, Mr. Roux takes his expert, Mr. Dixon, through a series of questions under oath – April 15 (from 0:00 to 8:09) and 16, 2014 (8:10 – to 11:48) – building to a pivotal summation (11:28 – 11:48).

Mr. Dixon tells the court that he went to a gun-shooting aka firing range at night to test the sounds of a cricket bat and gun-shots on a door. He stresses efforts made to replicate exact conditions so as to scientifically test things.

Entered into the court record on April 16 are recordings said to be sounds of a cricket bat hitting a door at a distance of 60 metres and 180 metres, and the sounds of gun-shots hitting a door - recorded at those same, 60 and 180 metre, distances.

Examined by Mr. Roux, Mr. Dixon affirms for the record that the cricket bat and gun-shot recordings played to court, “accord with the test that (he) attended”. The import of this testimony from the defence witness is, obviously, huge.

Reporting for BBC News, Andrew Harding, tweets: “So we've heard both cricket bats and gunshots at 60m and 180m. They sounded very similar. Big score for #OscarPistorius defence.”

Having reached the desired point, Mr. Roux takes his seat. Cross-examination begins.

Mr. Harding, the BBC correspondent, is impressed by the expert on the stand and now tweets: “Dixon strikes me as a very competent scientist, applying his skills across a broad range of evidence. State may imply lack of expertise.”

Gerrie Nel, the state’s razor-sharp prosecutor, (who, like Mr. Roux, has 30+ years experience - Mr. Nel as an advocate in SA), begins exploration of Roger Dixon and his testimony. Starting at 11:49 in the video here, Mr. Dixon, tells the court why he believes his background as a geologist, and his 18 years of service with the police force, enable him to give expert opinion on “all sorts of things”.

Mr. Nel’s cross-examination mines nuggets of information pertaining to Mr. Dixon’s expertise and his sound testing – from 11:49 – 18:44 before the customary tea-break, and from 18:45 – 24:27 of this video after the tea-break on the same day, April 16.

In the second of these sessions Mr. Nel digs deep into a previously unrevealed anomaly – that tests were redone:

“The sounds that we recorded when I was present – the cricket bat, that was in fast succession. Or slow. And the gun-shots were individual.” Mr. Dixon (20:32)

“Okay. So, what was played to court did not happen on one day.” Mr. Nel (20:46)

“The sounds of the cricket bat (‘Yes’ – Mr. Nel) happened one evening. (“Yeah” – Mr. Nel) And I am not sure, I cannot tell which recording it was, I don’t know that. The person who played that would have to testify.” Mr. Dixon (20:56)

“It is, it’s amazing because, you’re telling us that what you, when you said to court – the gun, the bat sounds of the bat sounds you remembered. And you identified the gun shots. Standing where you’re standing. Am I right, Mr. Dixon?” Mr. Nel (21:09)

“I identified those sounds as gun shots, my lady.” Mr. Dixon (21:28)

“But you weren’t present when it was done.” Mr. Nel (21:31)

“If that was the recording made recently then I was not present when that was done. However, it sounds, the difference between the cricket bat sound, the gun-shot sound, the gun-shot sounds the same.” Mr. Dixon (21:34)

“No, for me it goes towards integrity of a witness and I’m putting it to you. The question is about integrity – nothing else. You identified gun-shots and you weren’t present when they were made. Why would you do that?” Mr. Nel (21:46)

“Because I’ve heard gun-shots.” Mr. Dixon (22:05)

The geologist appears to wince at 22:08 – as this ground opens up.

“No, you can’t get away with that Mr. Dixon. You’ve been a policeman for many years. You’ve testified  in various courts – listen to my question. Why would you identify gun-shots and you weren’t present when they were fired? That’s the only question I want you to answer.” Mr. Nel (22:08)

“I was asked if I recognized the sounds of the shots and I replied in the affirmative. I heard…” Mr. Dixon (22:30)

“But we can take it you weren’t present when they were made.” Mr. Nel (22:38)

“The gunshots, I’m unsure. I do know that only one test was done with the cricket bat and was recorded.” Mr. Dixon (22:43)

“Now, let us just test you, and, Mr. Dixon, really, take it from me, I’m testing your integrity. You can take it. The gun-shots we heard could not have happened on the night you were on the shooting range with the bat, because we have rapid shots and that did not happen on that night. Am I right?” Mr. Nel (22:50)

You are right, my Lady”. Mr. Dixon (23:15)

“Mr. Dixon, it is a serious issue for an expert to identify things and he wasn’t present. I’m putting it to you, Mr. Dixon…” Mr. Nel (23:22)

Defence counsel Barry Roux rises to his feet and interjects: “My Lady, with respect, the evidence was never that those, that identified those as the gun-shots fired that evening. That was not, it’s now implied to him that was his evidence. That was never his evidence. He was simply asked to listen to the recording to say, and it was put to him what it was, but it was never his evidence that those were the gun-shots fired that evening when he was there. That’s not the evidence.” (23:33 - 23:57)

“My lady, I’m not going to argue, if the court will bear with me I’ll carry on with something. I think it’s on the record.” Mr. Nel (23:57)

“I think you should carry on with something because there is a dispute.” Judge Masipa (24:04)

“There’s a dispute, my Lady. I say the witness clearly identified the bats and the gun shots as one occasion. He’s never given us, the court, any indication it happened on two occasions. My questions are fair. That’s my argument.” Mr. Nel (24:09)

“Well, you will argue at the end of the case. After you’ve all read the record.” Judge Masipa (24:22)

(Gerrie Nel’s cross-examination of Roger Dixon continues – and it’s learned that audio recordings of a cricket bat and gun shots have been made by an unidentified music producer, based in Centurion, SA. Mr. Dixon tells the court he “had discussions with the gentleman in question that evening” and “it appeared to me that he had quite a lot of experience in soundtracks and so on”.

Among the global community watching the trial’s live broadcast feed is a renowned expert in recorded audio evidence - Paul Gibson, President of Professional Audio Labs based in New Jersey and New York, USA ( ). He tweets ( ) at this point in proceedings:

"there's quite a difference between a music producer and an experience forensic audio expert. I know...40 years 1,750 cases."

"My last gunshot analysis was the Sandy Hook shootings. Too many 'Testimony for Mony' would-be 'experts' around."

From East Sussex, England, in the UK - another viewer, Deborah Sullivan, tweets to ask Mr. Gibson:

"Would the sounds recorded at a shooting range replicate those heard coming from the bathroom?"

Mr. Gibson tweets back: "Will be different amounts of reverberation. Also gunshots are loud & transient, special techniques req'd."

"As in the case of Voice ID all conditions must be identical for accurate comparison to be valid.")

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