14 April 2014

South Africa: Pistorius Struggles on the Stand

Photo: Werner Beukes/Sapa
Paralympian Oscar Pistorius in court (file photo).

Pretoria — After two hours of tireless cross-examination, Oscar Pistorius broke down on Monday when prosecutor Gerrie Nel alleged he knew he was aiming at his girlfriend when he fired the shots through a locked door and that killed her.

"I did not fire at Reeva [Steenkamp]," the Paralympian athlete sobbed, prompting the judge to adjourn court for the second time in the morning to give him time to compose himself.

About an hour earlier, Pistorius also wept when Nel pressed him to recall the exact words he used to order a suspected intruder from his home before firing the fatal shots into the locked toilet cubicle in his Pretoria home on February 14 last year.

After a long pause, the Paralympian athlete cried: "I said 'Get the fuck out of my house, get the fuck out of my house'."

Judge Thokozile Masipa adjourned court and when it resumed Nel returned to this point to ask why this particular question had caused him to become emotional.

Pistorius replied that it was because he was remembering a traumatic night.

Nel suggested it was because Pistorius had not directed that phrase at a burglar but at Steenkamp, the model he dated, before he shot her in the predawn hours of Valentine's Day last year.

"Is that what you had shouted at Reeva?" asked the prosecutor, who contends Pistorius shot her intentionally after a row, then fabricated a story about a suspected burglary to allow him to claim he had acted in self-defence.

As Nel began his questioning on Monday, he warned Pistorius that the theme for the day would be "You're tailoring your evidence".

It was Pistorius's sixth day on the stand and the fourth under cross-examination, which is seen as the most crucial part of the trial since there were no eye-witnesses.

Nel, less abrasive but arguably more menacing than last week, took Pistorius through every step, thought process and scream leading up to the shooting and asked again whether he had intended the shots he fired into the toilet cubicle to kill.

Pistorius denied this.

"I fired my firearm out of fear, by accident," he said, later repeating: "My lady, I did not intend to fire."

Nel said his response constituted two legal defences and he was only entitled to one.

Pistorius insisted that he had not intended to discharge his firearm.

"Your defence has now changed, Sir, from putative self-defence to involuntary action," Nel stated incredulously, before asking whether Pistorius would concede that he had aimed his 9mm pistol at the door of the cubicle because he believed danger to lurk behind it.

Pistorius replied that he had not.

"Was it just lucky that your firearm was already pointed there," the prosecutor asked.

Pistorius began crying for a third time, asking how Nel could mention luck when somebody lost her life.

Unmoved, Nel accused him of acting, and called for the court to adjourn for lunch.

"You are now trying to get emotional again but it is not worth your while."

Earlier, when Pistorius testified that he had heard a "wood movement" inside the toilet cubicle, which he believed was caused by the magazine rack inside, Nel suggested that he had changed his aim to fire his last shots in the direction of this sound.

"You heard the magazine rack and you changed your aim."

Steenkamp, 29, was hit in the hip, arm and head. Pistorius risks a life sentence for premeditated murder.

His trial received extensive analysis in the weekend press, with legal experts agreeing that he was performing poorly in the witness box and Nel earning a profile in the New York Times.

The prosecutor on Monday repeatedly pointed out to Pistorius that he had strayed far from his evidence-in-chief on several points, including where he had placed an electric fan he moved before hearing a suspicious noise.

Initially Pistorius said he had placed it in front of a window, but he has changed his account to locate it at the foot of the bed.

Nel said the position of the fan, a duvet and a pair of flip-flops all contradicted his account.

He zoomed in on Steenkamp's white flip-flops and asked why these were found on the left side of the bed when Pistorius testified that exceptionally he had slept on that side because of a shoulder injury.

And, Nel added, why were all her other clothes apart from these and a pair of jeans packed into an overnight bag?

When Pistorius could not provide an answer, Nel put it to him: "She wanted to leave... and you shot her."

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