Pistorius trial: After the evidence, focus on character

  • 26 March 2014
  • From the section Africa
Pistorius in court
Image caption The trial will increasingly scrutinise Pistorius' actions and motives on the fateful night

So what have we learned after almost a month of prosecution evidence in courtroom D?

There's been plenty of sound and fury. And yes, a cricket bat, a door, some retching, and plenty of text messages.

But I'm not convinced it all signifies as much as we might think. I'll explain more in a minute, but first of all, here's my take on the prosecution's palpable hits, and woeful misses so far.

The hits:

  • Oddly, I think the most telling prosecution witness may yet prove to be the gun training-school owner, Sean Rens, who proved that Oscar Pistorius knew exactly when it was legal - and illegal - to shoot at an intruder in his house. The defence psychology expert will have a big job to convince the judge that the athlete's vulnerable condition as a double amputee made that knowledge irrelevant.
  • The "overlapping screams". I thought Barry Roux did a very competent job of finding room for doubt in what some of the neighbours believe they heard that night - particularly regarding gunshots and cricket bats sounding similar. But the Stipps, in particular, were adamant that they heard a man's voice overlapping with a woman's screams. That's going to be difficult for the defence acoustic experts to challenge.
  • The ballistics. We shall have to see how convincing the defence experts prove to be on this, but I found the state's version of the sequence of shots - giving time for Reeva Steenkamp to have cried out - quite credible.
  • Pistorius's gun obsession. In a sense this is more of a defence gaffe than a prosecution victory. Team Pistorius should never have contested the separate gun-handling charges. Their decision to do so smacked more of reputation management than of trying to win a murder trial. They gifted prosecutor Gerrie Nel the opportunity to show Pistorius as - at times - a volatile, gun-wielding fool.

I could go on. The text messages from Reeva complaining about his jealous tantrums were very damaging too - worrying evidence of a potentially abusive relationship - but Roux did a reasonable job of putting them in the broader context of an evolving, and clearly predominantly loving partnership.

Image caption The court has heard of text messages that shed light on Oscar Pistorius' relationship with Reeva Steenkamp

The misses:

  • The iPhone. What happened to the damning messages thought to be on Pistorius's phone the night of the killing? Either the prosecution never found them, or they never existed. Either way, they failed to show evidence of even a hint of a disagreement between the couple the night she was killed.
  • The cricket bat. I found Colonel Vermeulen's attempts to prove Pistorius must have been on his stumps largely unconvincing. His performance reminded me of Detective Hilton Botha's at the bail hearing last year - in other words, of a man inclined to fit the evidence to the state's case, rather than looking at it neutrally. His attempts to demonstrate Pistorius's posture in court were amateurish.
  • The lack of a detailed timeline. Prosecution sources tell me they're confident the record will show their witnesses have explained exactly what happened that night. This is not a jury trial, of course, and much hangs on the detailed written arguments submitted later to the judge. But my overall sense of the prosecution these past weeks has been of a team more preoccupied with picking holes in Pistorius' own version of events as spelled out at the bail hearing, than with mapping out its own exact thesis. And you can be sure that the defence will have a second-by-second reconstruction to present to the judge.

So what does it all add up to thus far? Not so much, I'd argue. Indeed, in a sense we've barely started.

My feeling is that the rival experts and the various neighbours and friends will largely cancel each other out. This trial ultimately rests on two key things - yet to come into focus. One is Oscar Pistorius' own performance on the witness stand. The other is the law.

Two people went into a bathroom. Only one came out alive. Inevitably this trial is going to hinge on Pistorius's own testimony. Not just what he says, but how convincingly he does so.

We've already seen evidence of his fragile emotional state in court this month. But we've also heard evidence of his anger.

Although Gerrie Nel has necessarily been a peripheral figure in court up to now, he is about to eclipse Barry Roux as he prepares to cross-examine the athlete; and make no mistake, Nel is a formidable, relentless, ferret-like performer, who will no doubt make every effort to push Pistorius towards a display of the sort of anger the prosecution believes led to him shooting Reeva Steenkamp.

Somehow Pistorius is going to have to convince the judge, not just of his honesty, but of the sense of extreme vulnerability he felt that night - a vulnerability he has spent much of his life trying to either hide or discount.

As for the law… Perhaps we've been distracted by all the talk of restaurant gunfire, screams, and angry texts. It's been made clear to me that the prosecution believes their case is watertight even if we accept Pistorius' own version of events.

In other words - if someone fires four shots through a locked door then he obviously intended to kill someone, and thus should be convicted of murder (pre-meditated or otherwise).

A reasonable man would and should have checked. What if it had been a neighbour's kid hiding in that toilet, sneaking in to steal a souvenir from his hero for a bet, rather than an armed intruder?

These are, ultimately, matters of law and precedent. And you can be sure they will become the furious focus of prosecution and defence in the weeks ahead.

The evidence can only go so far in this trial. After that, prepare to hear a lot about the difference between murder and culpable homicide, and a great deal more about the actions of a "reasonable man."