Oscar Pistorius trial: An unusual start

2014-03-03 14:00
Oscar Pistorius stands in court. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

Oscar Pistorius stands in court. (Themba Hadebe, AP)

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Oscar trial day 1 - lunch time report

2014-03-03 14:41

News24 correspondent Sipho Hlongwane reports during the lunch break of Oscar Pistorius's court case at the North Gauteng High Court. Watch.WATCH

Sipho Hlongwane, News24

Pretoria - The first morning of the Oscar Pistorius trial was characterised by unusuals. It is the first of its kind in South Africa, involving a celebrated figure accused of murder. It has drawn a huge international following and the army of journalists and photographers required to feed it, which required the court to make a pronouncement with reference to media access.

Having been limited by Judge Dunstan Mlambo last week, the broadcast media can only show video and stills images where and when permitted. In the overflow room, opened in an adjacent court to accommodate the media contingency and curious passers-by, the broadcast cameras were ordered to turn away from the faces of witnesses who would not give permission to be on camera.

The start of the trial was delayed by 90 minutes after the court was unable to secure an Afrikaans interpreter in Pretoria.


When the session began at last, the State read out the charges and in its reply, the defence team chose to deal in some detail with the allegations levelled against Pistorius in this trial and in his 2013 bail hearing, something that does not normally happen.

The bail hearing was a site of great drama as the State fought hard to have Pistorius denied bail. It forced the defence to reveal its hand from the beginning by arguing that he wasn't a danger to society and was guilty of nothing more than committing a terrible and regrettable mistake. The investigating officer Hilton Botha was eviscerated by the defence and shown to have made extrapolations where none could be drawn, and may have even tampered with.

He claimed that the State will rely on unsubstantiated evidence and hearsay intended to support the murder charge, and furthermore assassinate his character through the introduction of inadmissible character evidence.

Pistorius faces multiple charges. There is a count of murder, a count of discharging a firearm unnecessarily in built up or enclosed area, another count of unnecessarily discharging a firearm inside a restaurant, and a fourth count of possessing ammunition without a permit. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, but has chosen not to dispute that in the counts involving the discharge of the firearm that he did indeed possess the gun that went off. He has also chosen not to dispute that he possessed ammunition without the necessary permission.

The firearm-related charges are not related to the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp. A former lover alleges that Pistorius shot his firearm through the sunroof of her car, and the other relates to an incident that occurred at Tasha's restaurant in Melrose Arch, in which a gun he was holding went off. The State has also introduced alternative charges to the contravention of the Firearms Control Act, and alleges that those incidents can be described as reckless endangerment as well.

Circumstantial evidence

The defence has not yet laid out its version of events yet. The State has, and the prosecutor Gerrie Nel said by way of introductory remarks that he would base the case against Pistorius on forensic and ballistic reports as well as circumstantial evidence, which is what neighbours heard and saw on the night of the shooting. The accused's version of events cannot be believed, Nel said.

Kenneth Oldwage, one of the advocates on the defence team, read out the reply to the charges. Pistorius denies "in the strongest terms" that he intended to kill Steenkamp, and says that he believed that he was under attack by unknown intruders who presented a clear and present danger to him and his girlfriend. He disputes that he was wearing his prosthetics. (He claims that being on his stumps heightened his nervousness in the situation.)

The State is relying on the "possibility" that there was an argument to prove intention to kill on the accused's part, Oldwage said.

From the outset, it seems likely that the State will pursue two avenues - the first will deal with the death of Steenkamp, and the evidence that will be introduced there will be both forensic/ballistic reports, and witness testimony.

The second will try and characterise Pistorius as gun-happy and dangerous, and will rely almost entirely on testimony. This, the athlete contends, amounts to baseless character assassination. It is very likely that much of Judge Thokozile Masipa's time will be preoccupied by the defence’s attempts to bar these witnesses from testifying at all.

The trial is scheduled to last for three weeks, but it promises to be much, much longer than that, according to sources at the scene.

Read more on:    reeva steenkamp  |  oscar pistorius  |  pistorius trial

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