Oscar Pistorius murder trial: The case for and against

As the closing arguments in the biggest murder trial in the world begin, what are the key arguments that will decide his fate?

As Oscar Pistorius’s once bright star has fallen in such ugly and harrowing fashion over the last five months, two have risen.

Barry Roux and Gerrie Nel are now, much to their dislike in at least one case, globally recognised figures.

After months of evidence, and a month’s adjournment, today and tomorrow the two men will present their closing arguments.

Oscar Pistorius trial live

Despite all the evidence having been presented, there is absolutely no consensus among those who have watched the trial closely of quite what Judge Thokozile Masipa will decide.

The prospect of mitigation and appeal still loom over that decision, but the next two days mark Mr Nel and Mr Roux’s final opportunity to lead Judge Masipa in their direction.

These are the key points of what they are likely to contain.

Barry Roux – the case for the defence

Defence lawyer Barry Roux questions a witness during the trial of Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria Pistorius's defence lawyer Barry Roux

It is up to the state to prove that Oscar Pistorius knew Reeva Steenkamp was behind the bathroom door, and that he fired through it with the intention of killing her. They have not done so.

Mr Pistorius and Ms Steenkamp were in love. She had been waiting for Valentine’s Day to tell him as much. And even with their personal mobile phone messages to one another laid bare for all to see, still no reasonable motive has been offered for why Mr Pistorius would kill the woman he loved, and who loved him in return.

The state claims that the couple were arguing late into the night, and he shot and killed her, but there is no realistic timeline of events to support this.

If Pistorius’s neighbours, called to testify by the prosecution, heard the sound of gunfire followed by a woman screaming, then they have offered no compelling reason for how Ms Steenkamp came to be screaming after being struck by devastating bullet wounds both sides agree to have been instantly fatal.

They have also failed to explain how other neighbours, who live closer, heard only a man.

Only one person screamed in that early morning, and it was Mr Pistorius.

That Ms Steenkamp ate within hours of her death, as the state claims, falls within an area of science that simply cannot be relied upon, and certainly cannot be relied upon to convict.

 

The placing of certain items within the home - the duvet found on top of the jeans, the cell phones in the bathroom - none of these things can be relied upon either. The police, by their own admission, mishandled the crime scene. The gun was handled without gloves, and one of Mr Pistorius’s own watches was stolen. None of the police’s photographs, that show what was where and at what time, can be relied upon. The initial investigation’s two most senior officers have since both left the police service over their handling of it.

Mr Pistorius is a vulnerable person, with a heightened sense of anxiety for his own safety, and his actions must be understood in that context. He sleeps with his bedroom door locked, and a cricket bat held against it to force it shut. There is clear evidence of past occasions when he has believed an intruder was in his house.

The state asks why, in this situation of fight or flight, Mr Pistorius did not flee to safety. But he cannot flee, and he was fearing for not just his life but the life of the woman he loved.

It was a tragic misunderstanding, that has taken one young woman’s life, and ruined beyond repair the once extraordinary life of a talented and inspirational young man.

Gerrie Nel – the case for the prosecution

State prosecutor Gerrie Nel State prosecutor Gerrie Nel

Throughout the course of this trial, Mr Pistorius has changed his defence on several occasions, yet none of these different defences show him to be not guilty of murder.

That Mr Pistorius could have armed himself and run to the bathroom without checking on Ms Steenkamp’s whereabouts, and still falsely imagine her to be right by him in his bed is already highly improbable, and further discredited by Mr Pistorius’s own evidence under cross examination.

Mr Pistorius’s version of events have substantially changed since his bail application. That he now says the extraordinary fact of Ms Steenkamp’s silence in the toilet cubicle, while Pistorius shouted at an intruder to get out of his house, is because she had run in there to hide, having heard Mr Pistorius’s shouting, was not explained at the bail application.

He has tailored his evidence to suit his defence.

The couple had had an argument. Ms Steenkamp’s bag was packed. Police found her jeans on the floor because she was about to put them on and go, before she ran to the toilet to escape from her boyfriend. And as they argued, through the locked toilet door, him holding his firearm, he shot and killed her.

Mr Pistorius claims they were in bed by ten o clock. The weight of scientific evidence indicates Ms Steenkamp ate at 1am, for which the defence offers no explanation.

More importantly, even if Pistorius - however improbable - honestly believed an intruder had broken in through his bathroom window and locked himself in the toilet, even if his actions were motivated by terror, he is a murderer all the same.

When the sound of a perceived intruder in the bathroom startled him as he brought in fans from his balcony, he didn’t choose to alert his girlfriend who he believed was in the bed next to him, he didn’t check where she was, he didn’t choose to lead her and himself downstairs and out of the house.

He armed himself and went to confront it.

“Know your target and what lies beyond,” he wrote on his firearm competency test.

“Why didn’t he fire a warning shot, in to the neighbouring shower cubicle,” he was asked. To which he replied that he knew a ricochet could come back and hit him.

He didn’t know who was in that toilet cubicle, and yet he pointed his gun at it and fired four shots at it, safe in the knowledge that it would kill whoever was in there.

The state’s case is one of dolus directus - that he killed Reeva Steenkamp deliberately.

But in any case it must be at least one of dolus eventualis - that he knew his actions would kill, and that he killed.

His defence has sought to paint a picture of a paranoid man, driven by his disability to act in a fashion others might see as extreme, but independent and extensive psychiatric tests give Mr Pistorius a clean bill of mental health, and provide no reason for any diminished responsibility for his actions.

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