How did Oscar Pistorius' defence fare?

  • 8 July 2014
  • From the section Africa
Oscar Pistorius during his murder trial at the Pretoria High Court - 8 July 2014, Pretoria, South Africa.

Judge Thokozile Masipa stood up, bowed and walked stiffly out of courtroom GD; minutes later South African athlete Oscar Pistorius slipped away too, followed by his legal team.

No-one appeared to be smiling.

Within an hour, the court had been stripped of its automated television cameras, and prosecutor Gerrie Nel - clad now in an incongruously cuddly jumper - was busy helping his colleagues clear away the paraphernalia of 39 days of testimony, tears and confrontation.

The defence and prosecution teams now have a month between them to finish sifting through the evidence collected on the witness stand - its creaking, shabby seat now bearing testimony in its own way to all those frayed nerves - and to weave dozens of strands into compelling, but competing legal arguments that will be presented to the judge on 7 and 8 August.

So how did Oscar Pistorius and his expensive legal team perform?

Did they do enough damage to the prosecution's case?

And is there a chance that the athlete could be acquitted of either murder or culpable homicide following the killing of Reeva Steenkamp?

Let me start by clearing away some debris.

Image caption Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp - a model and law graduate - had been dating for three months
Image caption State prosecutor Gerrie Nel, known as "the bull terrier", smiled at the end of court proceedings on Tuesday
Image caption Barry Roux, Oscar Pistorius' lawyer, has sought to show the athlete's feeling of vulnerability

This case will not be decided on the forensics.

The experts seemed to agree broadly on many important facts.

The more minor disagreements - Ms Steenkamp's last meal; how and where she fell - don't strike me, ultimately, as pivotal ones.

The neighbours' testimony will not swing it either.

The state's witnesses insist they heard a woman screaming. The defence's witnesses - who live closer - heard a man.

I would put the defence ahead there, but not conclusively.

Courtroom drama

In theory, the court theatrics should not count either.

Prosecutor Nel did a snarlingly effective job of challenging and damaging the credibility of some of the defence's experts, and, of course, of Mr Pistorius himself.

It was dramatic stuff.

But the judge should now focus on the written evidence produced, not the combative manner in which some of it was obtained - we can leave that for any appeal.

So what does that evidence suggest?

Image caption Reeva Steenkamp's mother (R), June, has been in court for most of the trial
Image caption It has been an emotional time for both families
Image caption Oscar Pistorius himself often broke down in tears

The defence has worked hard - though some of their experts lacked a certain polish - to establish a precise timeline that accounts for the first "gunshots", the screams, the second set of "bangs" and the frantic telephone calls made by Mr Pistorius, some of his neighbours and security at the estate.

Yes, there are gaps and question marks - and plenty of room for alternative interpretations.

But it remains my sense that the defence's timeline has not been fundamentally discredited by the prosecution.

This is important - the judge has to choose between two versions - and significantly, the prosecution has not yet offered the court any coherent alternative explanation for, among other things, what those first "bangs" were.

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.

Given that the forensic experts agreed the bullet holes were made in the toilet door before it was struck with a cricket bat, the prosecution's argument here will be keenly awaited.

But all this helps Mr Pistorius only so far.

Imagine that Judge Masipa had got stuck in a traffic jam and missed the first two weeks of the trial.

Imagine that she, the public, the media - all right, let us say everyone - did not even bother showing up until the defence began to argue its case.

Even then - as I have argued before Oscar Pistorius would have a big problem.

In fact, if Mr Nel had sat back in court and simply smiled and shaken his head as each defence witness was offered to him for cross-examination, Mr Pistorius would have a big problem.

His own version of events - that he shot through the toilet door, convinced an armed intruder was on the far side, feeling vulnerable because of his disability, and desperate to protect himself and his girlfriend - still leaves him open to the very real possibility that Judge Masipa could find him guilty of murder or culpable homicide.

The prosecution knows that.

'The two Oscars'

Hence its scattergun approach to this case. The onus, throughout, has been on the defence.

In the end, I strongly suspect, this trial will hinge on what Judge Masipa concludes was going through Mr Pistorius's mind when he fired those four shots.

Will she accept his muddled, tearful, explanations offered from the witness box?

Will she agree that, on his stumps, a disabled Mr Pistorius had good reason to behave as he did?


What happens next?

•Prosecution to file its written argument to the judge by 30 July

•Defence to file its written argument by 4 August

•Trial resumes on 7 August to hear the final presentations from both legal teams

•Trial will then adjourn to allow the judge and her assessors to consider their verdict


Will she put aside all thoughts of his pedantic refusal to take responsibility for the other gun-related offenses for which he is also on trial?

Will she believe him?

Frankly, it is still anyone's guess.

But let me leave you with one final thought.

Image caption Judge Masipa must decide what Oscar Pistorius was thinking as he fired the shots through the toilet door

I have written before about the unknowable mysteries at the heart of this trial.

In the same spirit, I would urge you to embrace, or at least consider, the contradictions that we have heard about Oscar Pistorius.

In the course of the past few months the athlete has been portrayed as a ruthless thug and a sentimental romantic; a responsible role model and a petulant coward; a super-human athlete and a pain-racked wreck; a meticulous planner and an unthinking instinct-follower; a man who is either intensely vulnerable or supremely confident.

It strikes me that these are not contradictions - or at least they are not irreconcilable ones.

The Oscar Pistorius that has emerged in court these past weeks is a complicated, jagged, jigsaw puzzle of a man - a compelling character, worthy of a great novel.

Judge Masipa's unenviable task is not to choose between the "two Oscars" diagnosed by the state psychologist.

Instead, she has the much tougher job of acknowledging those contradictions and looking beyond them towards some approximation of the truth and of justice.

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