News / Africa

Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial Hinges on 'Improbabilities'

FILE - Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa.
FILE - Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa.

Eighteen months ago when he granted Oscar Pistorius bail after the killing of his girlfriend, South African magistrate Desmond Nair noted a number of “improbabilities” in the Olympic and Paralympic star's account of the shooting.

After 41 days of testimony and drama in the Pretoria High Court, Pistorius's freedom hangs on whether the prosecution has made its case well enough to convince judge Thokozile Masipa that such improbabilities cannot be “reasonably possibly true.”

Pistorius, a double-amputee who made it to the semi-final of the 400 meters at the London 2012 Olympics, said he fired through the door into the toilet cubicle in the mistaken belief he was defending himself from a burglar.

Why, Nair had asked, did Pistorius not find out who was in the toilet before firing four 9mm hollow-point rounds?

And why did Reeva Steenkamp not let him know she was there?

Only one direct witness

With Pistorius the only direct witness, much of the state's case rests on forensics, including evidence that the sequence of Steenkamp's injuries would have allowed her to cry out, and on the testimony of neighbors who say they heard the terrified screams of a woman immediately before and during a volley of shots.

The defense said the screams came from Pistorius, at an unusually high pitch for a man because of the distress of discovering that he had unwittingly shot Steenkamp.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel, known as “The Pitbull,” painted a picture of Pistorius, 27, as a gun-obsessed hot-head who killed Steenkamp, 29, in a fit of rage after an argument in the early hours of Valentine's Day last year.

Pistorius and his representatives have made no comment outside the trial since it started in early March, other than to thank friends, family and supporters.

Verdict Sept. 11

South Africa's apartheid government scrapped trial by jury in the late 1960s, meaning that 66-year-old Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to the bench, will ultimately decide Pistorius's fate when she delivers her verdict on Sept. 11.

Possible verdicts range from convictions for premeditated murder - and a minimum 25-year sentence - or a lesser count of murder, to culpable homicide - with a maximum 15-year sentence - if Masipa believes he did not intend to kill Steenkamp but did so by firing negligently or recklessly.

She could acquit if she accepts that Pistorius believed he was acting in self-defense - known formally as 'putative private defense' - when he pulled the trigger.

“This case is about the credibility of Oscar Pistorius,” said Johannesburg-based advocate Riaan Louw. “If he's not a credible witness and the judge does not accept his testimony, he's going to be convicted on either murder or culpable homicide.”

Pistorius' testimony

Pistorius gave five days of cross-examination in April under the gaze of the world's media.

By turns calm, tearful and combative, at one point he appeared to confuse the central pillar of his legal defense under questioning from Nel.

Having argued that the killing was a deliberate but mistaken act of self-preservation, he then said he pulled the trigger without thinking - an assertion that would match a so-called automaton defense but not self-defense.

Three times when under pressure during cross-examination, Pistorius blamed his legal team for differences between or omissions from the sworn affidavit prepared for his bail deposition and his evidence in court.

“When it starts happening regularly like this, and every time you get a difficult question you blame it on your lawyer, the judge is going to make a very careful note,” Johannesburg-based criminal defense advocate Mannie Wits said.

There were other inconsistencies in his evidence, including an admission that he had not after all left the bedroom to get a fan from the balcony - contradicting his bail deposition, in which he said it was during this absence from the bedroom that Steenkamp must have gone to the toilet.

Gun laws tightened

If the judge accepts his testimony and agrees that the shooting was self-defense, she must still decide whether shooting four times at an unidentified target on the other side of a closed door is legally “reasonable”.

After the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa tightened its gun laws, such that a person can shoot only if there is an imminent and direct threat - a principle Pistorius said he had read and understood as part of his firearms license test.

“He knew there was a human being in the toilet. That's his evidence,” prosecutor Nel said in closing remarks.

“His intention was to kill a human being. He has fired indiscriminately into that toilet. Then, M'lady, he is guilty of murder. There must be consequences," he said.

  • Reeva Steenkamp's parents, June (second from right) and Barry Steenkamp (second from left), arrive for the closing arguments in Oscar Pistorius' murder trial, at the high court in Pretoria, Aug. 7, 2014.
  • Oscar Pistorius (right) with his defense team Barry Roux (foreground), Brian Webber (left) and Kenny Oldwage (center) before the closing arguments, in the North Gauteng High Court, in Pretoria, Aug. 7, 2014.
  • State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel speaks during the closing arguments in the trial of Oscar Pistorius, in the North Gauteng High Court, in Pretoria, Aug. 7, 2014.
  • Oscar Pistorius arrives in court for the closing arguments of his trial, at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, Aug. 7, 2014.
  • Henke Pistorius, father of Oscar Pistorius, leaves after listening to the closing arguments in his son's murder trial at the high court, in Pretoria, Aug. 7, 2014.

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Comment Sorting
by: Ralph White from: New York
September 03, 2014 10:33 PM
Home invaders don't break in then sit on toilets. Nor would Pistorius assume that one would. He knew exactly who was on that toilet. He should get 15 years for non-premeditated murder.

by: Steve marsh from: England central
August 19, 2014 8:41 AM
Oscar pistorius is a spoilt brat who obviously turns on the tears of self pity.
I watched him close on trial and he was even laughing at stages...oh and you can see he enjoyed watching his doctor durman trying to score points against Mr Nell...but Nell had him covered.This man will be convicted or not by a judge here...but what will he do when he stands before Jesus....God help us all...oh...and God bless Mr Nell

by: john warne from: London
August 18, 2014 9:31 AM
Don't know how this trial has dragged on this long, its blatantly obvious he shot that beautiful girl with anger in his heart, because you can see the anger in his face.

by: Elisabeth from: Virginia
August 16, 2014 10:11 AM
I believe without any doubt Oscar Pistorius wanted to kill Miss Steenkamp that night. She had futilely tried to make their relationship work, to no avail. He's a hothead and continued disrespecting her and, after 3-4 months of tension and bickering (and his temper tantrums), she realized he was immature, selfish, jealous, insecure, short-tempered and had displayed inappropriate behavior and unhealthy emotional patterns and was not the kind of man she had hoped he was - she concluded she had to end the short-lived relationship. She hoped telling him she loved him might help solve their issues but of course it didn't. He was furious when he realized she essentially was rejecting him by ending their relationship that night and he lashed out and decided to punish her rather than let her get away with "humiliating" him by leaving him. I doubt he ever even admitted before he killed her that the failure of the relationship was his own doing. As to his ridiculously improbable excuse he's hoping the Judge will accept, obviously if you have an overnight guest and you hear a noise coming from the bathroom you would ask for verbal confirmation that the noise was your overnight guest and not an intruder, e.g., "Honey, is that you in there?" Of course you would NEVER shoot without getting verbal and/or visible confirmation that your overnight guest is safe and nowhere near the path of bullets! Pistorius knew precisely what he was doing. He intentionally took her life away from her. He deserves the maximum criminal penalty and if he would get away with premeditated murder it would be a clear travesty of justice. I pray for Reeva and her family and friends that he is convicted of his true crime--a cold blooded and calculated premeditated murder in the first degree.

by: Demetre from: Canada
August 14, 2014 11:08 AM
What convinces me he's guilty is why would she be fully clothed at 2:00am in the morning if she was sleeping beside him. He lost it temporarily & he should pay for his crime of an innocent beautiful girl that some of us dream to have. He had money, fame, beautiful girl, it's beyond comprehention what he did.

by: adebisi from: ekiti state nigeria
August 13, 2014 1:53 PM
As much as I would love to have this blade runner vindicated, I can't but stop thinking he did actually murdered his gal friend knowingly. Pistorius said after d shooting, he started calling out for his girl friend and when he didn't get any response, he knew he had been shooting @ her. Then he looked for a batton or whatever and broke tru d door of d toilet. Now my question is, why would she lock herself up in d toilet? If she was in her boyfriend's house and she needed to use the toilet,would she lock herself up in there for just a minute or two or what? I therefore put it to Mr pistorius that his girl friend ran into dat toilet and locked herself up in there because she was scared! And the only person she was scared of was Mr blade runner!
In Response

by: Rosemary from: South Carolina
August 17, 2014 5:43 PM
She got up to use toilet when he was on porch getting fans. He comes back in and hears noise in bathroom not knowing she got up but thought she was still in bed. When Oscar went into bathroom to confront intruder she locked the door and was quiet so the intruder could not get in and did not know she was in there in case intruder shot Oscar first. Then intruder would rob the place and perhaps not even know she was there.

As horrible as this is for Reeva and her family, I believe given the crime in South Africa and the vulnerability of Oscar being on stumps, it is possible this was an accident. It is possible the screams the witnesses heard were indeed Oscar's.

by: sugar
August 13, 2014 1:46 PM
He's a hot head. I have no doubt he's sorry now, put it's pretty clear that he was angry and shot her.

by: jonny from: sokoto,Nigeria
August 13, 2014 12:40 PM
this young man is evidently culpable, just snuffed dat angel coldly. pray he may get away with life as a deterrent to others

by: Barb from: Cleveland oh
August 13, 2014 7:50 AM
No one has mentioned anything about mr pistorious' guard dogs and why they did not bark during this invasion. Also how could his servant not possibly have heard anything?

by: tom from: austin
August 12, 2014 2:11 PM
Hoping the perp gets life. He obviously snuffed out the woman for no good reason.

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