Thursday 23 October 2014

Crucial moment in trial as Pistorius takes the stand

Aislinn Laing Johannesburg

Published 07/04/2014 | 02:30

Oscar Pistorius will give evidence for the first time during his trial
Oscar Pistorius will give evidence for the first time during his trial
Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp in 2012
Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp in 2012
Barry Roux, the lawyer defending Oscar Pistorius
Barry Roux, the lawyer defending Oscar Pistorius

AS Oscar Pistorius stood in the dock, his brother quoted a biblical reference that was particularly pertinent for the Paralympic champion.

"Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us," wrote Carl Pistorius on Twitter, citing Hebrews 12:1 and adding the hashtag "#runyourrace".

Today, the multiple medal-winning runner faces what could be the toughest challenge of his life as he testifies for the first time about the night he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

It comes after a week's delay in the trial brought about by the illness of an assessor – an assistant judge – in the Pretoria court.

But the break has given his defence team, which was taken aback by an abrupt end to the prosecution case, time to reflect on what the athlete will say about the events of Valentine's Day last year, when he fired four times through a locked lavatory door at his Pretoria home, killing his girlfriend inside.

He has already offered two statements – at his bail hearing last February and the start of the trial in March – explaining that he believed that Steenkamp (29) was an intruder and acted to protect them both.

The prosecution say he murdered her after the couple had an argument.

For legal experts, his first, spoken account will be "critical" to the judge's decision. Mr Pistorius (27) will be tested not just against his two previous versions of events, but also against a raft of direct and circumstantial evidence from witnesses called by the prosecution during their 15-day case.

"In this case, the criminal conduct, the act itself, is freely admitted," said Stephen Tucson, a criminal barrister and professor of law at Wits University in Johannesburg. "The only issue for the court is his state of mind and the most direct evidence of that is his own testimony.

"If a criminal suspect is lying through his teeth, the court can dismiss his version as untrue if it finds his state of mind as suggested by the circumstantial evidence contradicts him."

Mr Pistorius's testimony will be watched closely by Col Gerard Labuschagne, the head of the South African Police Service's investigative psychology section, who will look for weaknesses and mannerisms that could be exploited to the prosecution's advantage in cross-examination.

Gerrie Nel, the lead prosecutor, has hitherto played second fiddle to Mr Pistorius's barrister Barry Roux, whose ability to tie witnesses in knots during cross-examination has made him a household name.

But Mr Nel is also known to be a skilled and dogged interrogator. He is expected to try to needle Mr Pistorius towards one of the angry displays heard about from other witnesses – the "snapping" that prompted Ms Steenkamp to tell the athlete she was "scared of him sometimes".

SCREAMS

He will also raise the inherent improbabilities that many believe will decide the case against him: the fact that, despite knowing Ms Steenkamp was in his bedroom, he assumed the noise from the lavatory was an intruder rather than her; the fact that on deciding it was an intruder, he did not seek to speak to or warn his girlfriend.

Why, Mr Nel will no doubt ask, did Mr Pistorius mention speaking to Ms Steenkamp shortly before hearing a noise from the bathroom in only his second statement, and not his first? Why, too, did he not previously mention hearing the bathroom window slide open?

Among other issues likely to be raised with the athlete are that he said the couple went to bed at 10pm, but the state pathologist said Ms Steenkamp's stomach contents suggested she ate as late as 1am, and that he told the security guard who rang him after hearing shots: "Everything is fine."

He may be asked to explain as to why Ms Steenkamp took her mobile phone to the lavatory with her and locked the door, and why, when several witnesses said they heard a woman's screams from up to 170m away, he did not.

Mr Pistorius will not be the only witness to present the defence case.

As with the prosecution case, forensic experts are likely to play a major role, including Evidence Room, a US-based forensic animation firm, which produces crime scene re-enactments, and a ballistics expert who may contradict his police counterpart about the order that the bullets hit Ms Steenkamp.

Several of those originally listed as state witnesses could also be called, including a neighbour who told his wife that the "woman" she heard screaming was in fact a man, and the estate manager who Mr Pistorius called immediately after the shooting. Mr Roux has already promised to produce sound tests conducted in Mr Pistorius's gated community near Pretoria to discredit neighbours' accounts of what they heard, as well as proving his intriguing claim that his client's screams sound like those of a woman.

Mr Pistorius's siblings, Carl and Aimee, who rushed to the scene in the aftermath of the shooting, may be asked to talk about his behaviour and his heightened fear of crime that might have prompted it.

One of the team of psychologists who have worked with Mr Pistorius in the year since the shooting may also be asked to put his actions in his own particular context, and explain the paranoia that drove him.

The athlete, whose legs were amputated below the knee as a child, has said he was "acutely aware" of South Africa's violent crime epidemic, had been a victim of crime, received death threats before and felt vulnerable without his prosthetic legs.

The question many are asking is will he, in the next few days, be able to paint a sufficiently compelling picture of his unusually heightened fears to convince the court that he believed he was acting in self-defence, potentially bringing the charge he faces down to manslaughter?

Or will the judge refuse to be swayed and find him guilty of murder? (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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