Oscar Pistorius trial: Defence case postponed

The BBC's Nomsa Maseko reports from the court in Pretoria

The defence in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius has been postponed until 7 April as one of the assessors assisting the judge has been taken ill.

The athlete had been expected to take the stand on Friday.

The trial, in the South African city of Pretoria, has already heard 15 days of prosecution-led testimony.

Mr Pistorius denies deliberately shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in February 2013, saying he mistook her for an intruder.

Prosecutors allege that he killed her after an argument.

Analysis

There are no juries in South Africa's legal system but in serious High Court cases, two assessors are assigned to help the judge evaluate the case and act as additional eyes and ears.

They are usually lawyers or retired magistrates but they can also be lay people. For the sake of continuity and in the interest of justice, the same assessors need to be present for the entire trial.

In the event that both assessors disagree with a judge's verdict they can overrule her. But in the case of lay assessors, the judge's legal experience counts in her favour and her decision carries more weight.

Both assessors in the Pistorius case are lawyers so they are crucial in ensuring justice.

The justice department explains that a judge does not have to listen to the assessors' opinions but they usually help the judge to reach a decision.

Judge Thokozile Masipa, announcing that the assessor was ill, said that in her absence the court was "not properly constituted".

The judge suggested the date of 7 April to resume the trial, which both prosecution and defence teams accepted.

Under South African law, there is no jury system and two assessors, normally lawyers or retired magistrates, help the judge reach a decision in serious cases.

The BBC's Karen Allen in Pretoria says that, although Mr Pistorius is not legally obliged to testify, he is the only witness to the alleged murder and is expected to testify when the trial restarts.

His lawyers had previously told journalists that it was "likely" they would call him to give evidence first, she adds.

Prosecution testimony has relied on accounts from neighbours and specialist ballistics, forensic and mobile phone evidence.

Our correspondent says the defence had been due to address key questions, in particular:

  • Allegations from witnesses that Mr Pistorius was reckless with guns and had fired a pistol indiscriminately on two occasions in the past
  • Why he didn't check the whereabouts of Ms Steenkamp when he feared an intruder was in the house
  • Why, as a person used to handling weapons, he didn't fire a warning shot
Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp Oscar Pistorius denies the murder of Reeva Steenkamp

Ms Steenkamp, a model, reality TV celebrity and law graduate, was hit by four bullets while in the toilet cubicle of Mr Pistorius' home in Pretoria.

People who were in the area on the night of the shooting have told the court they heard screams, shots and bangs.

However, Mr Pistorius has said he believed Ms Steenkamp was in bed when he shot at the toilet door, thinking an intruder was about to attack them.

Mr Pistorius is a double amputee who holds six Paralympic medals and competed in the 2012 Olympic Games.

If found guilty, the 27 year old - dubbed the "blade runner" because of the prosthetic limbs he wore to race - could face life imprisonment.

INTERACTIVE
  • ×

  • 1. Balcony

    × Balcony

    Mr Pistorius said in his statement at the start of the trial that he woke in the early hours and walked on his stumps to the balcony, pulled in two fans, closed the sliding door and drew curtains. He said that shortly before he had spoken to Reeva, who was in bed beside him.

    He said he rejected prosecution claims that a witness heard arguing coming from the house before the shooting.

  • 2. Bathroom window

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he heard the bathroom window sliding open and believed that an intruder, or intruders, had entered the bathroom through a window which was not fitted with burglar bars.

    "Unbeknown to me, Reeva must have gone to the toilet in the bathroom at the time I brought in the fans," he said.

    Mr Pistorius said he approached the bathroom armed with his firearm, to defend himself and his girlfriend, believing Ms Steenkamp was still in bed.

  • 3. Shooting

    ×

    Both sides agree four bullets were fired. Ms Steenkamp was hit three times.

    Mr Pistorius said he fired his weapon after hearing a noise in the toilet which he thought was the intruder coming out of the toilet to attack him and Ms Steenkamp.

    He said he was in a fearful state, knowing he was on his stumps and unable to run away or properly defend himself.

    Mr Pistorius said he rejected claims that he was on his prostheses when he shot at the door.

    A witness told the trial she woke to hear a woman screaming and a man shouting for help. She said that after the screams she heard four shots.

  • 4. Bedroom

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bedroom after shooting at the toilet door, still shouting for Reeva. Lifting himself up onto the bed, he felt over to the right hand side of it and noticed Ms Steenkamp was not there.

    Mr Pistorius said this was when he realised she could have been in the toilet.

  • 5. Toilet door

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bathroom but the toilet was locked, so he returned to the bedroom, pulled on his prosthetic legs, turned on the lights before bashing in the toilet door with a cricket bat.

    Forensics expert Johannes Vermeulen told the court that the height of the marks on the door caused by the cricket bat suggest Mr Pistorius was on his stumps at the time.

  • 6. Emergency calls

    ×

    Mr Pistorius's defence team say he then called security at the gated housing complex and a private paramedic service before carrying Ms Steenkamp downstairs.

    A security guard claimed it was the other way round, and he had called Mr Pistorius first after reports of gunfire. However, phone records shown to the court revealed Mr Pistorius called the estate manager at 3:19am, a minute later he called the ambulance service and at 3:21am he called estate security.

    A minute later he received an incoming call - estate security calling him back.

    According to police phone expert Francois Moller, Mr Pistorius called his friend Justin Divaris a short time later and just after 4:00am he called his brother Carl.

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