Oscar's 31 seconds of silence

2014-04-13 15:00

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Thirty-one seconds – that’s how long Oscar Pistorius was silent for when asked by Prosecutor Gerrie Nel if he heard Reeva Steenkamp scream after he fired the first of four shots that killed her.

Late on the second day of what has been a sustained and brutal cross-examination, Nel said: “Are you sure, Mr Pistorius, that Reeva didn’t scream after you fired the first shot?”

Oscar slumped back in his chair and kept quiet for 31 seconds. Court GD in Pretoria was ­utterly silent.

On the audio recording, all that can be heard is Nel again asking “Are you sure?” after five seconds of silence had passed.

Eleven seconds later, a man can be heard taking a deep breath and slowly exhaling. Surprisingly, it is Nel who breaks the silence to come to Pistorius’ rescue, saying: “My Lady, I’m ­giving the witness time to console himself, he is distressed”.

“I wouldn’t have done that,” said an ­experienced former prosecutor.

“I would have kept quiet and counted and then when he finally said something, I would have said: ‘That took you four and a half minutes. What were you thinking about?’’’

I thought that was the moment he was going to crack, the former prosecutor added.

This piece of evidence is key. If Pistorius’ ears were ringing and he? couldn’t even have heard himself scream after the shots, as he had testified, then he can’t tell the court that three other witnesses didn’t hear her scream during the shots.

Saving Pistorius from his silence was a rare show of mercy from Nel, who during a turbulent two days of cross-examination compared a photograph of Steenkamp’s bloodied head to an exploding watermelon, called the athlete a liar and laughed openly at one of his responses.

Before his 31 seconds of silence, Pistorius twice became emotional as Nel carefully picked apart the improbabilities in his story.

These breakdowns were not caused by graphic or emotional testimony as has been the case in the past, but came when he was placed under significant amounts of pressure.

William Booth, a Cape Town-based lawyer, said the extended silence was “significant”.

“Should he not be over this kind of emotional ­response? He’s been asked so many things about the emotional and very traumatic times?...?is he now not blaming the emotions as a kind of excuse? Nel may come back to that.”

Both Booth and an experienced former prosecutor agree that Pistorius “has not done himself any favours under cross-examination”.

“I think he should start preparing for a lengthy incarceration” said the prosecutor. They agree that it is possible that Pistorius may have strayed from what had been prepared in the months of careful planning with his legal team.

Booth said it could be that Pistorius “had the particular type of personality that is a lawyer’s worst nightmare”.

“With all that preparation, it might be his lawyers are in fact dealing with a very difficult person with a strong personality who believes that what he says his right”.

Booth referred specifically to what Nel called the “full-circle” of explanations Pistorius gave for firing at the toilet door.

The athlete said he “accidentally discharged” the firearm, that he acted out of fear because he thought his life was in danger and also that he didn’t mean to pull the trigger.

Booth said he was “surprised that [Pistorius] is giving these three different explanations?...?I cannot believe his lawyer wouldn’t have gone through all these things”.

Steve Tuson, professor of criminal law at Wits University, said Pistorius was “not making a good impression”.

“I think you could probably describe Nel as grinding away [at Pistorius’ version]?...?he is demonstrating lots of small inconsistencies.

“You may think ‘so what’, but Nel is going to argue he’s unreliable on all these small issues, so he should not be believed on the main issue – that he didn’t know it was Reeva behind the door.”

Also of concern to Pistorius should be the fact that Nel is making “a list” in his case, much like the one he made in the Jackie Selebi corruption trial in which he successfully prosecuted the country’s top cop.

Judge Meyer Joffe completely accepted Nel’s “big five lies of Selebi” and even added a sixth.

The list relates to what Nel has called Pistorius’ “big conspiracy” – all the things that would have had to have been moved by police in order for his explanation to be true.

Referring to a photo of the scene as a police photographer claimed to have found it, Nel said: “I’m keeping a list [see graphic].

“A policeman must have, let’s start, opened the curtains wider, moved the fans, switched the light on and ensured that the denim is on top of the duvet because that is important, if the police put it next to the duvet, that is not important.”

“Correct, My Lady,” responded Pistorius.

“Why would the police do that?” asked Nel. “I don’t know,” he said.

Pressed by Nel about why the police would move these items when they had no idea what Pistorius’ version was, he again broke down.

“Why would this question make you emotional Mr Pistorius?” asked Nel.

“This is the night I lost the person I cared about, I don’t know how people don’t understand that.”

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