Oscar Pistorius: A glimpse of what might have been

  • 1 July 2014
  • From the section Africa
Oscar Pistorius on trial in Pretoria, South Africa, 1 July
Image caption Oscar Pistorius in court on Tuesday

Trials are, necessarily, about past events. And yet in court today, we were treated to a tantalising glimpse of the future Oscar Pistorius might once have had.

It wafted through the courtroom like a patch of unexpected sunlight, before prosecutor Gerrie Nel - true to form - marched over and yanked down the blinds.

It was Mr Pistorius's manager, Peet van Zyl, who had conjured up the sunlight - talking with enthusiasm about his client as a newly minted "global idol" with vast new wealth and "brand ambassadorships" within his grasp, deeply in love with his new girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and surprising her with concerts in Tuscany and athletics showdowns in Rio.

After weeks of testimony about blood and gunshots, one can only wonder what Mr Pistorius, sitting impassively in the dock, was thinking.

Earlier in the morning, Gerrie Nel had been behaving strangely out of character. He was deferential, respectful, almost tongue-tied in front of an expert witness for the defence.

Anyone who has followed this long trial will know that Mr Nel tends to rise to such occasions with all the restraint of a Rottweiler tossed a juicy steak. But soft-spoken acoustics expert Ivan Lin seemed to have an almost hypnotic effect on the prosecutor.

His secret? Nothing much really. He just stuck to the facts, declined politely to speculate, and took constant refuge in the relatively precise contours of his craft. Even when Mr Nel asked him what he meant by "intelligible", Mr Lin gently referred him to a dictionary definition.

Useful evidence

It's true that other experts have been called on to speculate more broadly than Mr Lin. But how much trouble might the defence have avoided if, for example, their psychiatric expert Dr Merryll Vorster had simply described Oscar Pistorius's evident emotional turmoil, rather than insisting on fixing it with a precise diagnosis - Generalised Anxiety Disorder?

Generalised Anxiety Disorder

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder is a medically-recognised, long-term condition
  • People with Gad feel anxious on most days and worry about a wide range of issues
  • It is thought to affect around one in 25 people at some point in their lives and is more common in women than in men
  • Symptoms vary - making it tricky to diagnose
  • People with Gad may have difficulty concentrating, feel tired and irritable, feel sick, dizzy or sweaty and experience aches and pains
  • Gad tends to run in families, can follow stressful events, and may be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain
  • The main treatments include using talking therapies, relaxation techniques and medication

But then, unexpectedly, the defence called Peet van Zyl to the witness stand - and in doing so brought Oscar Pistorius's character back into the heart of this trial, and Gerrie Nel back to his usual, cantankerous self.

Led by defence lawyer Barry Roux, Mr van Zyl spoke not only about Mr Pistorius's once-bright future, but also about his infrequent flashes of anger, and his concerns about his personal security.

It was useful evidence for the defence, which is still struggling to recover from its disastrous decision to contest three other gun-related charges introduced by the prosecution, thereby gifting Mr Nel the opportunity to question - repeatedly and with great effect - Mr Pistorius's character and credibility.

But one gets the clear sense that the prosecution is now sharpening its knives once again.

The prosecutor made only a little headway with Mr van Zyl in court on Tuesday. Instead, he asked the judge for an early break to allow him to prepare for a more detailed cross-examination on Wednesday. I wonder how well Mr van Zyl will sleep.

The trial itself is nearly over. The defence may call one or two more witnesses, and I understand that the prosecution may then ask the psychologist who assessed Mr Pistorius over the past month to give evidence.

Three psychiatrists compiled one report, which I'm told was a relatively brief document confirming that the athlete is mentally fit to stand trial.

The psychologist's report is much more detailed and, sources tell me, argues that Mr Pistorius was not suffering from any anxiety disorder prior to the death of Reeva Steenkamp.

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