News Africa

Saturday 21 April 2018

Lawmen take aim in deadly legal duel

Reeva Steenkamp
Reeva Steenkamp

Tom Peck


There was a time, a few weeks ago, when Pistorius trial devotees spoke of the contrast between its two lead advocates, the fearsome, snarling defence counsel Barry Roux, and the patient, kind, avuncular prosecutor Gerrie Nel, with his "as the court pleases" catch phrase and his penchant for an "early tea".

It was a juxtaposition suddenly obliterated in an instant, in a carefully planned and perfectly executed blitzkrieg assault. An image of Reeva Steenkamp's (inset) catastrophically wounded head was brought up on the many television screens in court, and stayed there for what felt like an eternity, as Nel demanded that the wailing Pistorius uncover his eyes, and look at it, "and take responsibility for what you have done".

Pistorius didn't do as he was told. Instead he broke down, and the trial had to be adjourned for almost an hour.

Shocking though it was, to those in the know it came as no surprise. For one thing, the early part of the trial was the setting out of the state's case, in which Nel wasn't cross-examining anyone. But more so, the reputation of South Africa's 'pit bull' prosecutor extends far beyond the country's legal circles. Even the waiters and waitresses in the cafes around Pretoria's legal centre are acutely aware of it. "Everyone thinks he's this nice, gentle guy," one told me. "Just you watch. He isn't."

Some have questioned whether his ferocious opening, in which he near bellowed at a sobbing Pistorius about how "Reeva's head exploded like a melon", went too far. What were his tactics? To traumatise and rattle the witness before beginning the crucial task of picking apart his story? If so, the defendant was so traumatised that an hour's break was necessary.

Should Nel win, it will arguably not be his greatest triumph. He has been well known in South Africa since he ripped apart the corrupt former police commissioner Jackie Selebi in the witness box. In that case, a police party had raided Nel's home in the early hours and arrested and charged him. He was unshaken.

Of course, it is likely that most of those shocked and appalled by his somewhat brutal manner have never seen a real life murder trial before. They are not televised in Ireland, and in South Africa this is a first. The state's position is that Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp intentionally and his story is a fabric of calculated lies. If it is the case, it is Nel's job to rip it apart.

Several times yesterday, Nel brazenly put it to Pistorius: "You are lying." The athlete maintained he is not.

Only Pistorius knows for certain what happened in his house on the night his girlfriend died. "The only other witness is dead. You killed her," Nel has reminded him many, many times.

There is no, real, concrete proof for Nel to go on, and he must prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Pistorius knew who was behind his toilet door when he fired four bullets through it. It's a difficult job – perhaps impossible. But there is nobody better to do it. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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