PRETORIA, South Africa – The next time murder suspect Oscar Pistorius appears in court, it will be on the day Reeva Steenkamp – the girlfriend he fatally shot on Valentine's Day – would have celebrated her 30th birthday.
During a hearing that took only 17 minutes in a cramped Pretoria Magistrates Courtroom C, neither state prosecution nor defense legal teams presented any surprises, as proceedings Tuesday were postponed until Aug. 19, while police complete their investigation.
The hearing was the first public appearance for Pistorius, who is charged with the premeditated murder of Steenkamp, since his release from police custody on $112,000 bail more than 15 weeks ago.
Turning to his brother, Carl, and sister, Aimee, as television cameras and photographers were ushered out of the packed courtroom, he clasped their hands before staring straight ahead.
State prosecutors asked for more time to investigate the matter, but declined to go into details, saying Pistorius' defense team had agreed to the postponement in prehearing communications.
Still, the August court date won't mark the beginning of the actual trial, which could start as late as next year. National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Medupe Simasiku says the state expects to complete its investigation by August and is hoping to serve an indictment on Aug. 19, along with setting a final date for the trial.
"Every person has a right to prompt justice," Simasiku told a huddle of journalists outside the courthouse. "We don’t regard this as a special case. We will deal with it fairly."
Prosecutors say they are happy with how police are handling the investigation, which is "continuing progressively."
The comments followed a tongue lashing from Magistrate Daniel Thulare, who took the opportunity Tuesday to reprimand the media for their coverage of the case.
He spoke of his concern around "the extent of the activities surrounding the issues pertaining to the administration of the fountains of justice" and his worries about the sanctity of the court process being put at risk by "scandalous conduct."
British organization Sky News last week published apparently leaked photographs of the bathroom in which Steenkamp was shot, with a smashed door and bullet holes visible, as well as coagulating blood on the floor.
The Pistorius family released a statement saying they were "shaken by the graphic images."
Thulare has asked state prosecutors to look into activities that "may amount to contempt of court," while requesting that all parties "respect the processes of the Republic of South Africa" as laid out in the country’s constitution.
"I also read newspapers," Thulare warned those assembled in the courtroom, which included some 100 journalists, as he described the Pistorius case as a "trial by media."
Brian Webber, a lawyer from Pistorius' defense team, said recent media coverage of the matter was "absolutely over the top and grossly disproportionate."
He confirmed that the defense team had not seen any photographs of the crime scene before they were broadcast to the public.
The pictures have raised further questions about the professionalism of the forensic officers handling the scene after lead investigator Hilton Botha admitted during the bail hearing that he had entered the premises without appropriate protective gear.
Pistorius' long-anticipated Tuesday court appearance has revived interest in the story, with Steenkamp's family speaking out and demanding answers in an exclusive interview broadcast on British television Monday evening.
"There is only one person who knows what happened," June Steenkamp said on television. "Why? Why did he shoot her? I want to know why he shot her. She must have been so afraid in the toilet."
At daybreak on Tuesday in Pretoria, there were nearly two dozen television cameras set up outside the Magistrates court.
Lulama Luti, South Africa’s Justice Department official who is in charge of dealing with the media, says she’s never seen interest of this magnitude in any previous case.
"This is a first for us as well, and we're trying to deal with it the best way we can," she said.
"It's not only Oscar Pistorius standing trial, but the entire South African justice system," said Martin Hood, a prominent lawyer who specializes in firearms cases. "The world is watching and we want to make sure we get it right."
Hood says it's going to be a tough fight for Pistorius, who admitted in his affidavit during the bail hearing to shooting the 29-year-old model through a bathroom door but insists he thought she was an intruder.
Hood says the onus is on Pistorius' defense team to demonstrate that the South African star perceived a clear and present threat, and that he responded proportionately to that threat.
"Because he [said he] shot her through a closed door, that threat is going to be hard to prove," Hood said.
If convicted of premeditated murder, Pistorius faces a mandatory life sentence, which in reality amounts to 25 years – unless "extraordinary circumstances" can be proven.
However, if the charge is downgraded to culpable homicide, there is no minimum sentencing requirement.
During his bail hearing, Pistorius claimed he mistakenly fired into the bathroom in a panic over an intruder, suggesting that his defense’s arguments would be based around negligence rather than self-defense.
Before Tuesday's appearance, few had seen the athlete known as the "Blade Runner" since he was released on bail. A woman who said Pistorius was a member of her church congregation raised her hands to pray for him during Tuesday's hearing and said she had seen him during several recent Sunday services.
Pistorius' track coach, Ampie Louw, who was also in court Tuesday to support the athlete, says Pistorius has not returned to training on the track, but is doing exercises to maintain his general fitness at home.
He says Pistorius is still dealing with the psychological trauma of Steenkamp's death.
"That’s still ... it cannot be nice," he said.
"It will be a long road ahead," Louw told Yahoo! Sports as he left court on Tuesday. "We'll [coach and media covering the trial] be seeing much more of each other."
- Crime & Justice
- Society & Culture
- Oscar Pistorius
- Reeva Steenkamp