Thursday 24 May 2018

Pistorious on ropes as prosecution picks holes in his defence

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius
Barry Roux, the lawyer defending Oscar Pistorius
Gerrie Nel, prosecuting attorney in the Oscar Pistorius case

Aislinn Laing in Pretoria

As he stepped into the witness box to give evidence in his murder trial last Monday, Oscar Pistorius cast a glance at Reeva Steenkamp's mother, sitting just yards away. The sense of expectation was palpable, and the athlete did not disappoint – immediately launching into a tearful apology for shooting her daughter.

South African interest in trial increases as lawyers land major blows on emotional defendant.

Directly addressing the horror that June Steenkamp has expressed over the fear her daughter must have felt that night, Pistorius told her: "I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved."

It was the first time Pistorius has spoken publicly about what happened that night – and, according to his family, the first time he has even given them or his lawyers a full account either. Last Wednesday, the prosecution had their first chance to cross-examine the athlete on a version of events they say is "implausible and far-fetched".

His sobbing, fitful description of what happened – and the reaction of those listening to him in court – has been broadcast around the world to a huge audience that follows each development closely. But despite the attention that his witness box performance commanded, the overall consensus was that it was not a good week for the Paralympian.

The prosecution has torn aggressively into nearly every aspect of his story, accusing him of making up new details to make it more plausible and of seeking to dodge responsibility for Ms Steenkamp's death.

Last Wednesday, the prosecution had its first chance to cross-examine the athlete on what they claim is an "implausible and far-fetched" account. And it wasn't long before his apology to Ms Steenkamp's mother was used against him by prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who justified his nickname, "Pit Bull", by launching an excoriating attack on the accused. Mr Nel told the athlete that if his apology was genuine, he would have made it long ago, in person and in private.

"You apologise to them when the whole world is watching," Mr Nel barked at the startled athlete. "You didn't meet them in private because you would have to take responsibility."

"Before you killed Reeva, people looked up to you. Now you have a responsibility to tell the truth, and you will not."

The prosecution alleges that Pistorius, 27, shot Ms Steenkamp, 29, through the locked lavatory door as they argued on the evening of Feb 14 last year.

Pistorius admits shooting her, but insists that he did so after hearing a noise and mistaking her for an intruder in his home.

As Pistorius gave his account of the events of that night in the witness box this week, he suffered a spectacular breakdown that left him howling and gasping for air.

His entire family and even his psychologist joined him in a chorus of tears, prompting the judge to call for a break. Only afterwards did they reveal that the reason for the high emotion was that they, too, had not heard the full story until now.

Even with his legal team, his family said, Pistorius had not been able to offer a complete account, only telling them that he was haunted by the warm, wet blood covering the lavatory as he battled to carry Ms Steenkamp out.

"It's the first time," a family source revealed. "Before, he's only been able to go so far and no further."

In a plea statement Pistorius made at the start of his trial, he introduced new details he did not mention in earlier statements made when he applied for bail last year. He said that he had spoken to his girlfriend shortly after he woke up and, moments later, heard the bathroom window slide open.

As his story unfolded over five days in the witness box this week, the athlete introduced further evidence, saying that Ms Steenkamp had asked if he was having trouble sleeping when he got up to close the balcony doors just before 3am. He said that after hearing the noise from the bathroom, he had whispered to her to phone the police as he got his gun. He said he heard the lavatory door slam, confirming to him that a burglar was in his home.

He said that he fired at the door in quick succession "accidentally" after being startled by another noise that suggested the intruder was about to come out. Mr Nel made predictable capital of Pistorius's new claims, accusing him of previously forgetting the last words he exchanged with his girlfriend before she died.

"In your bail application, you didn't see the need to invent this discussion," Mr Nel told him. "You made it up."

In return, Pistorius accused Mr Nel of trying to "stitch him up" adding waspishly: "The state's case has changed many times, mine has stayed the same."

Yet as the week ended, legal experts declared advantage to Mr Nel. In three days of cross-examination, the diminutive prosecutor has shown himself to be a more than worthy opponent of Barry Roux, Pistorius's highly paid barrister.

The state lawyer, who is a deputy director of public prosecutions, frequently had Pistorius on the ropes, using a close eye for detail to pick out inconsistencies between the three accounts he has now given.

"You can't hide the truth from this court," he told the athlete on one occasion.

There was, however, controversy about his decision to show the defendant a close-up picture of Ms Steenkamp lying dead, her gaping head wound clearly visible, on big screens around the court. It caused Pistorius to break down, forcing an adjournment in proceedings, but sources close to the case said it would not be the last time they would show graphic photographs.

"We show those to the accused every single time, in any murder, any armed robbery," the source said. "They have to confront what they have done."

Mr Nel's focus in highlighting tiny flaws, raising doubts, casting aspersions on Pistorius's character, comes down to one aim. "We have to show that the accused's version cannot possibly be true," the source said.

"We look at what a reasonable man would do in the position of the accused. One has to consider his disability but he's not made it a factor, so neither do we."

As such, two starkly different portraits of the world's most famous Paralympian have been offered up for the judge's consideration.

The first, drawn out by Mr Roux, showed Pistorius as a good Christian from a close-knit family who never took drugs and drank sparsely. He did much for charity, including a Mozambican landmine-clearing operation whose patron was Nelson Mandela, and was a good Samaritan too, once stepping in to help a woman being attacked and, on another occasion, a man from being stoned to death.

The second offers a rather different sketch, of a man who loved guns, fast cars and photogenic blondes, who had a quick temper, a selfish nature and an unwillingness to take responsibility for anything that went wrong in his life.

This was a man, the prosecution said, who "picked on" his loving girlfriend to the point of telling her off for chewing gum. He was so cavalier with firearms that he accidentally set one off when he asked for it to be passed to him in a crowded restaurant, and fired another out of the sunroof of a car for a joke.

For those not in court, Pistorius's account has been a one-dimensional affair. Because the testimony of defence witnesses cannot be televised without their express permission, the athlete's reedy monotone is all there is to follow.

Since he remains almost immobile in the witness box, usually staring directly at the judge, his voice has proved to be the best barometer of his emotions, pitching higher when he is emotional, becoming croaky when he is seeking to persuade the judge.

Yards away is his family, poring over transcripts each evening, provided by a service that they pay for, and joining in intense conferences on the finer points of evidence with his lawyers during breaks.

Meanwhile, South Africans are showing no signs of their interest abating. Each detail of the day's hearings come up in fierce debates on public transport. Even those who are less interested say they must read up on it if they do not wish to be excluded from dinner party conversations. And as pictures emerge on Twitter showing office workers gathered listening to the athlete's evidence, the running joke among South African bankers is that the trial is to blame for Nigeria's GDP recently overtaking their own.

© Telegraph

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