Oscar Pistorius trial: Top 10 questions for the defence

2014-03-26 09:28

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State prosecutor Gerrie Nel has closed the state’s case in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. Here are the ten key questions the defence will have to address.

1. Oscar Pistorius’ biggest problem – his own story

“I shot her, I thought she was a burglar, I shot her.”

According to Dr Johan Stipp, a radiologist and one of Oscar’s neighbours, this was Pistorius’ version when he encountered the bloodied athlete next to Reeva Steenkamp’s near lifeless body, less than an hour after the shooting.

Read: Crying Oscar prayed to God for Reeva’s life

This was the version that was initially leaked to the media and was later confirmed by Pistorius in his bail application.

To understand why this version is thorny, you need to look at the indictment that was served on Pistorius last August: “The accused said to witnesses on the scene that he thought she (Reeva) was an intruder. ... An error (as to the identity of the person), will not affect, the intention to kill a human being.”

In other words, Pistorius fired four shots into an enclosed toilet space using bullets designed to inflict maximum damage while suspecting there was a person behind the door.

That’s murder.

In order to defeat the charge, Pistorius’ defence will have to show that he honestly believed, in the circumstances, that his life was in danger. Expect expert evidence about violent crime levels in South Africa, as well as how subjectively vulnerable Pistorius might be because of his disability.

His own testimony will also be crucial in establishing his state of mind.

Read: Oscar’s vulnerability is relevant to case, says expert

Even then, Pistorius can still be found guilty of culpable homicide.

2. “The attack must be against you, must be against a person, must be unlawful.”

Closely related to number 1, Pistorius answered an exam question in a firearm licensing application process that shows he knew what the legal requirements were for firing a gun at an intruder.

Sean Rens, a gun dealer, testified that Pistorius told him he’d once gone into “full combat” mode when he thought his tumble dryer might be an intruder.

Rens testified that in another exam question, Pistorius answered the athlete indicated you could not fire at people who were stealing items in your house in a remote area, far from police and security services.

So why did Pistorius fire through a closed door, when no attack was imminent?

Read: Oscar said he wouldn’t shoot burglars in firearms competency test


3. Can Oscar scream like a woman?

Defence Advocate Barry Roux has repeatedly stressed that expert witnesses will testify that Pistorius sounded like woman on the night in question because of his heightened anxiety.

Four witnesses have testified to hearing the distinct screaming of a man and a woman before what sounded like gunshots just before 3.17am.

Three of them have also testified that the “terrified” screams continued during the shots.

This contradicts Pistorius’ version and it can be inferred from the evidence that Pistorius was fully aware he was shooting a female person, possibly Steenkamp.

Read: Terrible screams don’t match Oscar’s version, neighbour testifies

4. The ballistics: Was Reeva in a ‘defensive position’?

Captain Chris Mangena from the police’s ballistics lab achieved instant celebrity when it became clear to the public that he would not be intimidated by Roux’s cross-examination.

Mangena testified that Steenkamp was facing the door when she was first hit in the hip.

He said the second shot missed her and that she fell back onto a magazine rack, in a sitting position, where the third and fourth shots hit her with her arms over her head in a “defensive position”.

From Mangena’s testimony it can be inferred that there would have been enough time to hear Reeva scream after the first shot.

Roux argued that ballistics experts would show Steenkamp was hit on the right side of her body, as if on her way out of the toilet and that Pistorius fired two “double-taps”, or shots in quick succession.

Mangena said “double taps” were “impossible”, that he would have expected to find the bullet holes in the door and the wounds on Steenkamp closer together if that were the case.


5. Can a cricket bat on a meranti door sound like a gun?

This is one of the particulars of Oscar’s defence that has gripped the public from the start, sparking YouTube videos and recreations.

The state argues that it was a set of shots at about 3.17am that killed Reeva Steenkamp and that there was screaming before these shots.

The defence, however, claims that this second set of shots was in fact the sound of Pistorius breaking down the bathroom door with a cricket bat.

The defence experts will have to argue it was another set of bangs before 3.17am, also heard by two witnesses, which were the shots that actually killed her.

The screaming in between the two sets of bangs, they will say, was actually Pistorius.

Pistorius trial: What was mysterious ‘boom, boom, boom’ before shots?

6. The bathroom light – on or off?

Witness Anette Stipp has testified that she woke up at about 3.02am on the morning Reeva was shot and that she heard the “terrified, terrified” screaming of a woman.

Read: Oscar trial: ‘The thing I remember most is the screaming’

Stipp said Pistorius’ bathroom light was on before she heard the 3.17am shots, which the state alleges killed Steenkamp. This contradicts Pistorius’ evidence that everything took place in total darkness.

The defence has questioned Stipp’s memory in this regard, saying Pistorius would testify that a light was not working at the time.

7. Was Pistorius on his stumps when he broke down the bathroom door?

One of the most hotly contested parts of the state’s case has been Colonel Johan Vermeulen’s testimony that Pistorius was on his stumps when he bashed down the bathroom door with a cricket bat.

In his bail application affidavit, Pistorius says he put on his prostheses after realising he may have shot Steenkamp by accident and that he then bashed down the door.


But Vermeulen said he could only match the bat to the marks when he was standing on his knees, a similar height to Pistorius without his prostheses on.

This could mean that Pistorius was not being honest about what transpired on the night in question.

The defence has contested this evidence bitterly, saying its experts would show it was possible for a person of normal height to make the marks on the door.

Another key piece of evidence is a mark on the door, which Gerrie Nel calls the “defence’s mark”. The defence has photographs, which the police excluded from the court files, that show it matched the bat to this mark.

The defence argues that the police left this mark out because it could not have been made by a person on their stumps.

8. How could Steenkamp have eaten a meal two hours before her death?

Pathologist Gert Saayman testified that, although it is an inexact science, he estimates that Steenkamp ate a meal of vegetable matter about two hours before her death.

This means Steenkamp would have eaten at around 1am, while Pistorius claimed that the two were already in their bedroom before 10pm.

Again, this casts doubt on Pistorius’ version of events on the night.


9. What did Pistorius say to Reeva shortly before he killed her?

Pistorius will have to explain a major discrepancy in the version he provided in his bail application affidavit and the one he gave during his plea explanation in the trial.

“In the early hours I bought two fans in from the balcony.

“Shortly before that, I spoke to Reeva who was next to me in bed.”

This conversation, which was contained in the athlete’s pleas explanation, was never mentioned in his bail application.

10. The left or the right side of the bed?

Another key point of contention between the state and the defence has been on which side of the bed Pistorius was sleeping.

The state has led evidence from Pistorius’ ex, Samantha Taylor, that the athlete always slept on the right side of the bed. There was also a pair of flip-flops photographed on this side of the bed.

But according to the defence, Pistorius was sleeping on the left side of the bed that night.

It remains to be seen why this distinction is an important one.

Read: What were flip-flops doing next to ‘Oscar’s side of the bed’?

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