Oscar Pistorius trial: World’s media descends on North Gauteng as murder case opens

24-hour TV channel will cover prosecution of Paralympic athlete who shot dead girlfriend

Pretoria

More so than at any other time in his remarkable life, South Africa’s double-amputee Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius will find himself in the full glare of the public spotlight this morning.

Outside the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, the world’s media are waiting for him, in a tented city of temporary studios.

Inside, Judge Thokozile Masipa is waiting for him, where she will hear him accused of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

One of his uncles, Arnold Pistorius, has appealed for an end to “public commentary” on the affair, which has not so much fallen on deaf ears as failed to cut through the crescendo of noise.

South Africa is a country of many languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, and  Xhosa, but two words punctuate conversations on buses, cab drivers’ radios and the excited TV news trailers. They are “Oscar” and “Reeva”.

For most of the rest of the world, the news on Valentine’s Day morning last year was that Oscar Pistorius had killed his girlfriend. In South Africa, the news was that he had killed Reeva. She was well known here, and extremely popular: the model with an easygoing nature and a degree in law. Here more than anywhere else, the tale is still about two people. One’s life is tragically over, the other’s – regardless of what happens over the next few weeks – will never be the same again.

The state prosecutor,  Gerrie Nel, is likely to seek to portray a man who was once a towering hero of his country as angry, volatile and obsessed with guns.

 

The 24-hour channel set up in South Africa exclusively for the trial, and the rest of the watching world, are expected to hear of how he is alleged to have accidentally discharged a gun under a restaurant table in Johannesburg and of how he fired a shot through the sun roof of an ex-girlfriend’s car during an argument.

Prosecutors also hope they will be successful in their  attempt to unlock Pistorius’s phone, which they believe may hold crucial information – in the form of picture and text messages – in establishing what happened that evening.

Currently they are trying to get a US court order to  authorise Apple to unlock his iPhone, as the password Pistorius’s legal team provided has not worked, though they insist the correct one was given (it could subsequently have been changed remotely).

Among the state’s list of 107 witnesses are neighbours who claim to have heard shouts and screams coming from Pistorius’s house on the night he fired shots through his bathroom door – which struck and killed Reeva Steenkamp.

The court will also hear from former footballer Mark Batchelor, a close friend of Steenkamp’s. Also on the list are two of Pistorius’s ex-girlfriends, Melissa Rom and Samantha Taylor, though not all 107 witnesses are expected to appear.

He will also come face-to-face, for the first time, with Steenkamp’s mother, June who, in an interview last year recalled a time Reeva called her from the car while Pistorius was driving. “She was afraid,” June said. “She said, ‘Mummy, I’m in the car with Oscar and he’s driving like a lunatic.’ So I said, ‘Will you just give him the phone?’ She gave the phone to Oscar straight away. And I said, ‘If you hurt my baby, I will have you wiped out.’”

The defence is expected to call witnesses who allege that Pistorius had previously been overly anxious about intruders, especially at night when he would not be wearing his prosthetic legs. In late 2012 he tweeted about having gone into “full attack recon mode in the pantry”, having mistaken the sound of a washing machine for an intruder.

If Pistorius is found guilty of intentionally killing Steenkamp he will face a minimum 25 years in jail. If he is found guilty of a lesser charge of culpable homicide – that he did honestly believe an intruder was behind the door – his sentence could be non-custodial, or it could be up to 15 years in jail. South Africa’s prisons have an unforgiving reputation.

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