Oscar Pistorius’ out-of-court settlement under scrutiny

2014-01-24 08:47

An out-of-court settlement following months of negotiations between Oscar Pistorius’ lawyers and representatives of the parents of his slain girlfriend could work against the Olympic athlete at his March murder trial, says a legal expert.

The two sides have been in talks since about August, said a lawyer for Reeva Steenkamp’s family and a settlement could involve Pistorius paying her family about R3 million, according to media reports.

Steenkamp lawyer Dup de Bruyn said in August that the parties were negotiating, but both sides have refused to comment on the details, including the amount being considered, because of their sensitive nature.

“Discussions are ongoing and clearly one would like to reach a settlement,” Pistorius lawyer Brian Webber said of the nearly six months of talks. “It’s fair to say the negotiations have been going on for some time.”

Pistorius family spokeswoman Anneliese Burgess said “any dialogue between Oscar’s lawyer and the Steenkamp family is a private matter and out of respect for Reeva’s memory, we will not be commenting in any way on this”.

The trial of the double amputee will start on March 3 when the one-time sporting hero will face charges of murder and illegal possession of ammunition. Prosecutors say he will also be indicted on two other charges relating to allegedly shooting a gun recklessly in a public place on two separate occasions.

Pistorius killed Steenkamp at his Pretoria home on February 14 last year and was charged with premeditated murder, which can carry a sentence of life imprisonment before the chance of parole. He denies the charge and says he shot Steenkamp with his licensed 9mm handgun through a toilet door by mistake, thinking she was an intruder.

Any settlement before trial will help Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, who relied on their model and reality TV star daughter for financial help.

Law professor and practising attorney Stephen Tuson said Pistorius could seek non-disclosure clauses in any settlement and insist that the agreement was made “without prejudice” – meaning that he does not admit to any fault. However, any settlement might still be used for cross-examination of Pistorius by the prosecution if he testified at his trial, Tuson said.

“It definitely does provide material for the prosecution, to just niggle, a niggling question or two,” Tuson said. ‘You paid. Why if you are innocent?’ ”

The long negotiations are believed to be nearing their conclusion with Pistorius’ lawyers reportedly hopeful of finalising an agreement before the 27-year-old’s trial begins in Pretoria. A conviction, either on a murder charge or a lesser negligent killing charge could leave an already financially stretched Pistorius open to a large civil claim.

State prosecutors are not involved in the private negotiations between Pistorius and Steenkamp’s family.

Tuson, who is not part of the case but has been following it, said a court was “entitled to draw inferences” if Pistorius refused to answer questions – as is his right as a defendant – on why he paid compensation.

“Personally, I would defer ... any admissions or any settlement because I don’t want any inferences to be drawn,” Tuson said.

Burgess said Pistorius was still “overwhelmed” and continued to spend time with his family while preparing for his trial. One of the world’s most famous sportsmen, Pistorius is rarely seen in public now and is thought to still be living at his uncle’s Pretoria home after he was released on bail nearly a year ago.

Pistorius’ agent, Peet van Zyl, said the athlete had been training as often as four or five days a week for about a month before Christmas, but was now “scaling down” to prepare for a trial which is likely to be one of the highest-profile cases involving a sports figure in years.

The case will be heard by Judge Thokozile Masipa who will pronounce Pistorius innocent or guilty of murder.

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