Africa

Thursday 21 August 2014

Pistorius lawyers turn his defence into attack

Emotions run high as South Africa comes to standstill for murder trial

Aislinn Laing in Pretoria

Published 09/03/2014 | 02:30

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Pistorius with Reeva Steenkamp in 2012
Oscar’s sister Aimee rests her head on an unidentified woman’s shoulder in the Pretoria Court

It was one of the odder moments in an already extraordinary trial. And no one knew quite what to do. A teenage boy, brought into the court by his barrister father during a tea break, stood grinning next to Oscar Pistorius, having already shaken hands with him earlier.

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As he shifted expectantly from foot to foot, it became apparent that he was waiting for the go-ahead to snap a promised "selfie" – before being shooed away by Pistorius's legal team.

For Pistorius, it was a reminder of what he once was: a globally renowned athlete who, with boundless drive and ability, shattered sport's glass ceilings and won sponsorships from the world's biggest brand names.

A little over a year ago, he was a hero for many young South Africans – a poster boy for achievement about whom they were frequently taught in school.

Now, as he stands in the dock having shot dead his girlfriend on St Valentine's Day last year, he is the suspect in the country's most sensational murder trial.

The first week of what is expected to be a six-week hearing started with Pistorius's legal team adopting the strategy that the best form of defence was attack. In an opening statement read out to the court, Pistorius spoke frequently about the "truth" – and how the prosecution was on the wrong side of it.

"The state has no basis whatsoever for alleging that I wanted to take Reeva's life," the 27-year-old athlete said. "They have embarked on a strategy to rely on unsubstantiated allegations in an endeavour to prove that I wanted to kill Reeva."

He said that calling as witnesses old girlfriends and men with whom he had had fights was akin to a "character assassination", and that the defence would also highlight the way the crime scene had been "contaminated, disturbed and tampered with" by South Africa's oft-criticised police.

His lawyer, Barry Roux, continued the attack, with abrasive cross-examinations that saw him ticked off on more than one occasion.

Yet in many ways, the prosecution team is on the back foot. It has the right man in the dock, since Pistorius has admitted killing Ms Steenkamp. But with him as the only witness to what happened, the evidence on which the prosecution must rely is largely circumstantial.

Only one person knows exactly why Ms Steenkamp was killed – and with no jury system in South Africa, just one person, Judge Thokozile Masipa, has the unenviable task of divining his reasons.

The facts of the case are that Pistorius shot at Ms Steenkamp four times through a locked lavatory door at his home on a Pretoria security estate in the early hours of February 14. Bullets from his powerful 9mm Parabellum pistol burst through the door, hitting his girlfriend of three months in the hip, arm and head. They killed her almost instantly. Pistorius then bashed down the door with a cricket bat and pulled the 29 year-old out, telephoning the estate manager and friends seeking help.

At issue is whether Pistorius fired the shots at Ms Steenkamp in a rage over an argument, as the prosecution contends, or whether he did so thinking she was an intruder.

Depending on the judge's decision, he could walk out of court a free man – or be sent to one of South Africa's notoriously tough jails for a mandatory 25 years.

The trial has transfixed South Africa. Thousands tune in each night to the Oscar Channel – a dedicated channel set up by a cable TV network – to feed on each detail, which is then discussed relentlessly in bars, cafes and on the daily commute to work.

This is also the OJ Simpson trial for the Twitter age. Like every other reporter who tweets the trial from court, everything I post is retweeted by people who then fire back questions and their own analyses. Outside Pretoria High Court, in the autumnal rain that has poured down since the trial started, an army of broadcasters huddle under tents. No day's evidence finishes without US television anchors proclaiming their own verdict.

On the evidence so far, it boils down to three key questions. Could the high-pitched screams heard on the night Ms Steenkamp died have been those of Pistorius? If they were Ms Steenkamp's, it would reinforce the prosecution's case that he killed her in anger; the defence says they were his.

Were neighbours actually close enough to have heard the gunshots that killed her? Two witnesses claim that a woman was heard screaming before a second set of gunshots – suggesting Pistorius knew who he was shooting. The defence says the second set of bangs was in fact Pistorius, realising he had shot Ms Steenkamp by mistake through the door of the locked bathroom, smashing it down with the cricket bat.

Finally, was there a light on when the shots were fired? If so, the defence claims that Pistorius could not see where he was shooting seems less likely.

Pistorius insists he was "too scared" to turn on the lights, until he realised he might have shot Ms Steenkamp.

With a seat in the front row of the public gallery, I sit directly behind Pistorius's uncle Arnold, the de facto head of the family, who attends court almost daily with his wife and a phalanx of photogenic daughters. We discuss Pretoria traffic, and complain about inaudible witnesses and the uncomfortable wooden benches. He regularly buys me bottles of water, expressing concern that I am five months pregnant.

Pistorius's brother Carl keeps up his brother's spirits with motivational tweets, many of a religious nature. On the morning the trial started, he quoted JRR Tolkien: "You can only come to the morning through the shadows."

Meanwhile, their sister Aimee broke the ice last Thursday by going over to talk to Kim Martin, Ms Steenkamp's cousin, who was sitting on the other end of the family bench. Her approach was welcomed after the disappointment expressed by Ms Steenkamp's mother, June, that Pistorius wouldn't even look at her when she attended the first day of the trial.

The Pistorius family has never entertained the possibility that he intended to kill Ms Steenkamp and is holding out for an acquittal. But given the additional option of a culpable homicide charge available to the judge if she cannot be sure it was murder, such an outcome seems unlikely.

Sitting six feet in front of us, dressed in a dark suit and tie, is the defendant. He frequently looks back to seek reassurance from his relations.

At the end of each day he is hustled out by his entourage, pushed through the barricade of cameras outside.

There has been no shortage of drama in the evidence of the seven witnesses heard so far.

The first, Michelle Burger, a neighbour of Pistorius, burst into tears as she talked about waking to hear "petrified screams" in the warm summer air. After a day of searching questions from Mr Roux about how she could have heard so clearly from 170 metres away, she cried again as she explained to the prosecutor that her memory was so vivid that she relived it daily.

Later, Dr Johan Stipp told how he found Pistorius knelt beside Ms Steenkamp's already prone body, trying to stem the bleeding and get her to breathe. "Oscar was crying all the time, he prayed to God, 'Please let her live, she must not die'," he said.

The trial has also shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the private life of Pistorius and those around him. A former girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, told the court how he had been an angry boyfriend obsessed with security and guns, and how their relationship broke down after he cheated on her with Ms Steenkamp.

Ms Taylor too dissolved into tears when confronted by Mr Roux, who told her he had emails to prove that she too had been unfaithful.

Although Pistorius has largely dispensed with the tears that fell so readily during his early bail hearings, his composure has sometimes slipped. Any reference to the injuries he inflicted on Ms Steenkamp prompts him to slump forward, bring his shaking hands to his face to cover his eyes, then use his palms to block his ears.

With more than 100 state witnesses and a battle between forensic experts to come, it is likely there will be much more high emotion on display. But as the week drew to a close, even Pistorius seemed to feel a sense of reprieve. As the court rose, I muttered "Thank God it's Friday". Pistorius turned to me, raised his eyebrows and smiled briefly, before heading out into the cameras once more.

© Telegraph

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