Pistorius trial: The battle that lies ahead

Photographers take photos of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius as he stands in the dock during his bail hearing at the magistrates court in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday, 22 February 2013

There are, it strikes me, not one but two Oscar Pistorius trials beginning in South Africa at Pretoria's High Court on Monday.

One is relatively straightforward - call it "The State v Oscar Pistorius".

The other is a much more fickle beast, which you could sum up as "Pistorius v Pistorius".

Both trials present huge challenges for the Olympic athlete and his high-powered legal team. But while it is, of course, early days, my suspicion is that the latter trial could prove the most awkward for him.

Here is what I mean:

Clickable 3D model of Oscar Pistorius' house

Pistorius home, graphic

The first trial will see the prosecution attempt to prove that Mr Pistorius knowingly, intentionally, murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, during a heated row on Valentine's Day last year.

For this, the state may well start with the forensics at the crime scene - the angle of the bullets, the distance Mr Pistorius was from the bathroom door when he pulled the trigger; anything - autopsy included - that can raise doubts about, or directly contradict, the athlete's version of events provided at the bail hearing.

Then there is the possibility of witnesses, or phone records and text messages, which might suggest that the couple were arguing in his house that night - something he has furiously denied and which surfaced only briefly at the bail hearing.

And lastly, there is his character. If the prosecution can find cause to slip it past the judge - who may rule against anything that smacks of unwarranted "character assassination" - we are likely to see a parade of ex-girlfriends and acquaintances who may throw light on the couple's relationship, and on Mr Pistorius's allegedly volatile and "trigger-happy" temperament.

All this is likely to dominate the headlines and occupy much of the trial itself. We've already seen a number of alleged "leaks" regarding the state's case.

This picture taken on 4 November 2012 during the Feather Awards held at Melrose Arch in Johannesburg shows South African Olympic sprint star Oscar Pistorius and his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp Oscar Pistorius has denied the couple argued on the night of Reeva Steenkamp's death

The defence team will respond by painting its own, even more detailed picture of what Mr Pistorius insists was a terrible case of mistaken identity.

In this, he has the advantage of well-resourced investigative and legal teams, and - cynics would argue - the lack of other living witnesses inside the house to contradict his version of what happened in his bathroom that night.

Oscar Pistorius

South Africa"s Oscar Pistorius starts his men"s 400m round 1 heats at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium in this August 4, 2012
  • Popularly known as "blade runner", he was born without a fibula in both legs
  • Won a key legal battle in 2008, when athletics' governing body, the IAAF, allowed him to compete against able-bodied athletes
  • Made history in London 2012 by becoming the first amputee sprinter to compete in the Olympics
  • Apologised after claiming that his rival, Brazilian Alan Oliveira, was wearing blades that were too long in the 2012 Paralympics 200m final

On the other hand, all the state has to do is prove that the athlete was lying about any single aspect of his bail-hearing testimony for Mr Pistorius to be in deep water.

That is why it was such a risk for the athlete to give his version of events in such detail a year ago - a move prompted by the state's decision to charge him with premeditated murder and to force him to fight hard to secure bail.

The state's case - and the memorably hapless performance of now ex-lead detective Hilton Botha - took a battering at that hearing.

Did the state have more compelling evidence that it chose not to reveal?

Or was it, as some analysts have suggested, playing the "premeditated" card simply in order to force Mr Pistorius's team to reveal its own hand early on to keep him out on bail, and perhaps to try to manage the early damage to his reputation?

A great deal hangs on the issue of what new evidence the state presents in court, and to what extent Mr Botha's shambolic version of events remains intact.

Second chance

As for the second trial: "Pistorius v Pistorius".

Let us assume, for a moment, that Mr Pistorius's testimony - his version of events - is gospel truth, and that, despite flinging plenty of mud at his character and raising a few niggling questions about the forensics, the prosecution cannot fundamentally prove otherwise over the course of the next few weeks in court… Then what?

Now comes the prosecution's second chance.

Andrew Harding reports from the courtroom where cameras will partially televise the murder trial

By his own admission, Mr Pistorius shot four times at someone he had not seen, or conversed with, or positively identified in any way; someone who, he suspected, was hiding behind a door in his upstairs bathroom.

This is the "high-water" scenario for the athlete - the best possible version of events that his team can now present to the judge.

Yes, his defence will say, but he was on the stumps of his legs, feeling the sort of vulnerability that an able bodied person cannot begin to understand, and convinced an intruder meant him and Ms Steenkamp harm in a country where violent burglaries are relatively common and, perhaps more relevantly - given that Mr Pistorius's house is in a heavily guarded and virtually crime-free estate - where a pervasive sense of vulnerability grips many communities.

No, the state will counter, Mr Pistorius - an experienced gun-handler - should have done more to find out who was in there, and whether they were armed and dangerous.

A "reasonable" person would not have behaved in such a reckless manner…


Start Quote

Will she - should she - choose to make an example of Mr Pistorius?”

End Quote

It is at this point that the trial veers away from narrow issues of evidence and proof, and into more subjective territory, not just concerning the interpretation of existing law, but about what constitutes "reasonable" behaviour in a country like South Africa, and what sort of message Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa intends to send to the public at home and abroad.

She will be under intense scrutiny - from the media, from a government concerned about South Africa's international reputation, from campaigners highlighting the shocking levels of violence against women here, from a police force worried about vigilantism, and from a public with strong views about one of its most iconic sporting heroes.

Some of this she can, and should, shrug off. Other pressures will be harder to ignore.

Will she - should she - choose to make an example of Mr Pistorius?

What signals would it send to the public if he walked free?

If he is found guilty on the lesser charge of culpable homicide, should he still serve time in jail or would a fine and a suspended sentence be more appropriate?

How to find the right balance between natural justice and procedural fairness?

If the first trial does not go Mr Pistorius's way, of course, none of this matters. He will be found guilty of murder and go to jail regardless.

But even if he makes it through the first trial intact, then he still faces a daunting battle.

Andrew Harding Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

South Africa cricket: Not just a 'white sport'?

Andrew Harding looks at whether grassroots initiatives and quotas can help broaden cricket's appeal in South Africa.

Read full article

More on This Story

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    I think this will come down to a case of beyond reasonable doubt, but then I dont know the SA legal system.
    Also I was intrigued by the comments at 345.by Big Dave but moreso the fact that then promptly after he made them all comments were subsequently referred for moderation, one could argue that if the bbc feels that strongly about it they should not allow HYS on it.

  • Comment number 349.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    Sadly in SA that is not really true though. Its hard to understand as a brit that this is a country where people often have a metal gate between living and sleeping quarters to lock when you go to bed, where 3-4k rapes occur daily (many during robberies) and where armed robbery is common. Shoot to kill in robberies is therefore normal as the robber wont hesitate if you do!

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    surely if you heard an "intruder" and you knew your partner was in the bedroom b4 you went to sleep, you'd check in a heartbeat if they were there in bed first?????????

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    In today's news:
    "A family of three has died in an attack on their farm near Richmond In KwaZulu-Natal. Police say a 76-year-old farmer, his 65-year-old wife and their son were all attacked yesterday afternoon. It's understood their house was ransacked, and firearms, household items and an undisclosed amount of cash were stolen. No arrests have been made."
    That's why you shoot 1st. This is Africa.


Comments 5 of 350



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.