Voice of America (Washington, DC)

11 April 2014

South Africa: Drama, Tears As Pistorius Testifies in Murder Trial

Pretoria — It has been an intense week at the Oscar Pistorius trial here in Pretoria.

The South African athlete took the witness box on Monday as the defense launched its case - in a trial that has drawn global interest.

Pistorius delivered the anticipated drama within seconds of taking the stand.

"I would love to take this opportunity to apologize to [long pause] to Mr. and Mrs. Steenkamp, to Reeva's family, to those of you who knew her and are here today," he began. "I'd like to apologize and say there's not a moment and there hasn't been a moment since this tragedy happened that I haven't thought about your family. ... I can't imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I've caused you and your family. I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved."

Pistorius is charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria home last year. He says he mistook her for an intruder and that he didn't stop to think before firing four bullets through a locked bathroom door, killing her.

Prosecution casts doubt

But the prosecution argued that he meant to kill her, and set up a blistering argument that attacked the athlete's story of that night, and his claim that he constantly felt fearful in crime-ridden South Africa.

Head prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who has earned the nickname "the bulldog" for his tenacious take-downs of witnesses, showed why when he began his cross-examination Wednesday.

In a move that provoked intense criticism from trial viewers, Nel put up a photo of Steenkamp's gruesome head injury on courtroom screens.

That's it, have a look there. I know you don't want to because you don't want to take responsibility, but it's time you take a look at it," he told Pistorius. "Take responsibility for what you've done, Mr. Pistorius.

"My lady, I've taken responsibility," the athlete addressed the judge, "by me waiting, and not wanting to live my life, but me waiting for my time on this stand to tell my story for the respect of Reeva, and for myself I've taken responsibility. But I will not look at a picture where I am tormented by what I saw and felt that night. As I picked Reeva up, my fingers touched her head, I remember! I don't have to look at a picture. I was there."

Nel then accused the athlete of mixing up his lies. He also systematically, and often sarcastically, challenged Pistorius' character, painting him as an egocentric young man who is unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.

Nel, a theatrical prosecutor, often leaned on his rostrum, hand on one hip and the other hand twirling his glasses impatiently. On Friday, Nel, full of energy, continued to question a weary-looking Pistorius, who broke down many times while describing the events of the night of the murder - February 14, 2013.

Audience riveted

The trial has riveted South Africa, and it's the first major criminal trial to be broadcast live. Social media in South Africa has erupted with opinions on the trial, and the courtroom's public gallery is regularly packed. A South African broadcaster has even created a pop-up TV channel dedicated to the trial.

This week, Judge Thokozile Masipa made a rare comment to the public, prompted by laughter in the court during the cross-examination.

"I also want to say something to people out there; you possibly think this is entertainment. It is not," she scolded. "So please restrain yourselves."

The trial continues next week when defense lawyer Barry Roux calls on between 14 and 17 witnesses.

Judge Masipa will ultimately decide Pistorius' fate - which could be life in prison. But in this very courtroom, she is not his only judge.

Reeva Steenkamp's mother June Steenkamp has sat in court all week, staring stonily at the athlete throughout his emotional account of events.

On Thursday, she told a British paper that he has left her "unmoved" .

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