News / Africa

S. Africa Prepares for Pistorius Murder Trial

Anita Powell
South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius goes on trial Monday, facing charges that he murdered his girlfriend in his Pretoria home.  The event is being called South Africa's "trial of the century."

There is no doubt who killed Reeva Steenkamp, a well-known model and the girlfriend of South African runner Oscar Pistorius.  Pistorius has admitted to fatally shooting her on Valentine’s Day, 2013.

What remains in dispute is: Was it murder?

That will be the central question before Judge Thokozile Masipa beginning Monday. She will have to wade through testimony from as many as 107 state witnesses -- and possibly, from Pistorius himself.  

The list of state witnesses includes forensics experts, family members and friends, neighbors and even an ex-girlfriend.

Pistorius says he mistook his girlfriend of three months for an intruder to his Pretoria home, and that he did not mean to shoot her through a locked bathroom door.  

The prosecution argues that the shooting was deliberate.
Legal expert Stephen Tuson says that if Pistorius himself is called to testify, South African law demands that he speak first -- which could make for an explosive start to the trial.

Tuson, an adjunct professor at the University of the Witwatersrand Law School, says the prosecutors have a formidable task.

“In this case, it’s fairly unusual because the accused has admitted the criminal act.  He’s admitted firing the shots which have killed Miss Steenkamp," he said. "And so the only issue in dispute for the prosecution to prove is Mr. Pistorius’ state of mind at the time of the shooting. Did he have criminal intention, or was he negligent in his shooting?”

He predicts the trial could stretch on for months.  The proceedings are not slated to be a continuing trial, meaning that if it surpasses its March 20 deadline, it will not simply continue, but will be scheduled for a later date.

Forensics expert David Klatzow says he fears that experts may be able to spin their findings to suit each side.

“I’m hoping that it doesn’t turn out to be a case of dueling experts, but all too often this is what happens," he said. "You’ve got the state expert who says categorically, black, you’ve got the defense expert who says, categorically white and it ends up as a duel between the experts; often a highly technical duel and often the judge is not in a position to follow the technicalities of that duel.  And what often happens, and unfortunately so, is that the judge ends up weighing experts rather than expert testimony. And that’s always a dangerous thing.”  

Pistorius shot to fame by being the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, in 2012.  He also has won a slew of medals at the Paralympic Games.  His fall from the medals podium to jail has made his tale even more dramatic.

The courtroom will be packed with family members, supporters and journalists from around the world who are enticed by the potent mix of sex, sports and celebrity that the trial presents.

Parts of the trial will be televised live.  In a sign of the public's fascination with the case, a South African station is launching a 24-hour channel dedicated solely to the trial.

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