Oscar Pistorius murder trial: what should we expect?

The murder trial of the world's most famous disabled athlete begins in Pretoria next week

Tom Peck@tompeck
Thursday 27 February 2014 21:30
Oscar Pistorius appears at Pretoria magistrates’ court at a preliminary hearing in August 2013
Oscar Pistorius appears at Pretoria magistrates’ court at a preliminary hearing in August 2013

It will be a juxtaposition grimly appropriate when, in the hours between Sunday night and Monday morning, the attention of the world narrows from Oscars plural to singular.

In Hollywood, as the planet's most luminescent women are liberating themselves from their towering heels, a South African athlete who was once among the brightest stars in the sporting firmament will be strapping on his legs and finally taking the next steps of a long walk that has only the remotest prospect of ending in freedom. It is not just his drama. The tragedy also involves a young woman whose life was brutally cut short. But for the foreseeable future, the world will have eyes only for the main protagonist: the man who killed her.

The cliché has already been repeated 100,000 times – that the story of Oscar Pistorius's life is beyond the imagination of Hollywood: a man with no legs running in the Olympics. That achievement has long since acquainted the "Blade Runner" with the flashbulbs and the helicopters and the TV satellite trucks that are already gathering around the High Court building in Pretoria, just a few miles from his villa in a gated compound. It is a small apartment around which, courtesy of a thousand television graphics departments, half the world has had the tour. From bed to balcony, balcony to bathroom, past those mobile phones, around the bed, possibly pausing to put on prosthetics, possibly not.

Many of the world's most unforgettable images of recent years have come from the country at the foot of its most exotic continent, but it is not an exaggeration to say that nothing in South Africa's tumultuous recent history has gripped its conscience quite like this. On Sunday night, a special 24-hour channel devoted to nothing but the trial will start broadcasting. Much of the action from the courtroom will be broadcast live, a first in South African law, which several of the nation's broadcasters fought a substantial legal battle to secure.

What will those viewers see? Only the opening and closing arguments, evidence from experts and the final judgment, for a start. Pistorius's testimony and that of the witnesses will not be televised, but audio will be available.

The case will begin like any other, with the charges against him. Some comparatively minor firearms offences that will probably be dealt with later, and then the charge that he murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Barring an extraordinary twist, he will continue to deny premeditated murder. He has always insisted that he shot her in a case of mistaken identity. If convicted on the murder charge, he could face a life in prison.

His expected "not guilty" plea will be made to judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, a former crime reporter who made headlines in 1998 when she became the second black woman to be appointed to the high court. She has a history of firm judgments in crimes against women, having handed down life sentences to several rapists, which she justified by arguing that the crime was on the rise to such an extent that it was destabilising the country.

There will be no jury. Pistorius's fate rests in her hands only. Trial by jury was abolished in South Africa under apartheid in 1969, a fact that has horrified many observers, though several white South African lawyers fought for it on the basis that black defendants would not receive a fair trial from white jurors.

Among those listening will be Steenkamp's mother, June, who has indicated that she will attend the trial. Her father, Barry, is expected to be at home, recovering from a near-fatal stroke, which his brother says happened while reading a newspaper report about the trial.

Pistorius's legal team is extensive. It includes a "forensic geologist" with expertise in metal analysis, with 18 years' experience of working with the South African police. He has also hired the Evidence Room, the US firm that specialises in producing animations of crime scenes. Henry Lee, a US forensic scientist famous for testifying during the OJ Simpson trial, has said that he too was approached. (Pistorius's lawyers have refused to comment on such a claim.) Two South African firearms experts have been recruited, one an expert on "blood-spatter patterns" and "crime-scene reconstruction".

But the star of the show will be Barry Roux, a lawyer with more than 30 years' experience at the bar and a penchant for scarlet ties, who did so much to demolish the police case at Pistorius's bail hearing that the man in charge of the investigation, Hilton Botha, was removed from the case.

Roux will be assisted by Kenny Oldwage, well-known in South Africa for securing the acquittal of Sizwe Mankazana, the man who was driving the car in which Nelson Mandela's 13-year-old great-granddaughter Zenani died in an accident in 2010.

Oscar Pistorius leaving court last year

The state's prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, has already identified the questions he wants answered about Pistorius's story. Why would a burglar lock himself in a toilet? How did the athlete grab his pistol from under the bed without noticing that the bed was empty? Why did Steenkamp not speak to him from the toilet as he called out her name? Did no sound emerge from the bathroom after the first shot was fired, that might make plain it was Steenkamp inside?

Nel will seek to prove that Steenkamp was killed in a premeditated murder, even though no such specific charge exists in South African law. In essence: not that he had planned the attack some time in advance, but that he knew she was behind the bathroom door, and that he shot with the intention of killing her. The prosecution says that several shots were fired – that he did not stop after one – which could be a significant factor.

Pistorius's lawyers, as most people know, will argue that he thought that an intruder was behind the bathroom door, and that Steenkamp was sleeping in bed. He was on his stumps, reasonably immobile and therefore vulnerable, and that he shot at the intruder through the door.

Rumours of new evidence have surfaced in the past few days, notably that Pistorius told inquiring security guards that everything was "fine", when in fact his girlfriend was dead in his apartment. (This is reported to have come from a South African radio station claiming to have details of the prosecution case against him.) Also: that he was surfing porn on his phone. (If so, so what?) And that none of the four phones in his apartment had been used to call for help. Pistorius's reported response was that he called the manager of the housing estate and asked him to call for an ambulance; and that he also called a private paramedic service. His lawyers say they have a fifth phone that the athlete used to make the calls. Meanwhile, South African detectives are said to be at the Apple headquarters in America trying to prise this evidence out of the handsets.

These rumours have yet to be formally challenged by Pistorius's team, but their existence gives weight to growing speculation that the prosecution might have compelling new evidence as to what happened that night, which it held back from the bail hearing last year. Earlier, the state had suggested that the holes in the bathroom door were at such a height and angle that they showed that Pistorius had put his prosthetic limbs on before firing, which would undermine his story, perhaps critically. Now it seems that the evidence is consistent with Pistorius's story – at least that part of it.

For premeditated – that is to say, deliberate – murder, the mandatory sentence in South Africa is life, which would mean 25 years unless there are extraordinary circumstances. There are a few here: that it is a first offence; that he is a young man; and any impact his disability might have had on his actions. But commentators on South African law think it would be almost impossible for these factors to trump a verdict of murder.

If Pistorius is found not guilty of such a charge, he would be expected to face a lesser charge of culpable homicide. His claim is that he mistakenly believed he was in danger – that he made an error. In such a case, the question is: does his mistake justify his actions?

Could he reasonably have believed that an intruder was behind the door? And, if so, was shooting several times through the door an acceptable course of action? What would "an objective, ordinary South African" have done in such circumstances? (An "objective ordinary South African", that is, who could not walk.) To fire many times through a shut door may be considered at the upper end of reasonable action.

Should Pistorius be convicted of culpable homicide, there is no minimum sentencing legislation. He could receive a non-custodial sentence; or, if he were found to have been grossly negligent, he could face 15 years in jail.

Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend he is accused of murdering

The judge's list of witnesses has 107 names on it. If even a fraction of those make it to the stand, the trial will go on way beyond the three to six weeks for which it has been scheduled. Among those names are several of Pistorius's former girlfriends, and figures from the world of Paralympic sport. It seems likely, therefore, that questions of Pistorius's character may come to form a key part of the trial.

This could be awkward. Before Valentine's Day last year, it would have been hard to overstate Pistorius's profile in his home country. It is a place with a proud sporting history. It has the best cricket team in the world, probably, and a superb rugby team, too. But these are sports whose histories are closely associated with apartheid, and questions still linger over them as to whether there are enough black players and enough mixed-race players on the teams. In Pistorius, South Africa had a white man who entirely transcended all of those questions.

But in the days, or more accurately the hours, following Steenkamp's death, other tales emerged. He kept guns by his bed. He fired them at ranges. He had, allegedly, accidentally fired a gun in a restaurant. He had tweeted about having gone "into full attack recon mode in the pantry", having falsely imagined there to have been an intruder. And, most pointedly of all, a former boyfriend of Steenkamp's had reportedly warned her of Pistorius's supposedly darker side. So much of everyone's life is now lived in the public domain that it is possibly not surprising that such a list could have been quickly compiled. It is a giant leap, though, from there to premeditated murder.

Many of the journalists gathering in Pretoria have spent much of their careers following Pistorius around the world, charting the course of his remarkable life. They know him well. Whatever should happen, everything has changed for ever. His loyal father, Henke, knows that, too, and he knows the Hollywood script better than anyone. What are the thoughts that go through a father's head as he drives his 11-month-old baby to hospital to have both his legs amputated below the knees? It's hard to imagine. What are his thoughts as he recalls that moment, sitting in the stands of an Olympic Stadium, waiting for his son to come out and sprint for his country? Or on Monday, when he will sit in the public gallery and watch his son on trial for murder? Impossible.

Where the story has now led is of course barely believable. But it is, in its way, tragically true to the movie-makers' oldest emotional string-pulling formula. Shooting his model girlfriend dead through the bathroom door – the unreal twist that leads to the most unimaginable resolution. The sprinter with the world at his carbon fibre feet, locked up on his stumps in a prison cell. The only questions left to answer are: what are the thoughts in Pistorius's head? What is the truth? What did he actually do?

Turn on the cameras. Press play. We are about to find out.

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