PRETORIA, South Africa – The length of an electrical cable, a duvet tossed on the floor, the position of some curtains – it is these tiny details that could be the undoing of Oscar Pistorius' account of what happened on Valentine's morning last year when he shot and killed his girlfriend.
The circumstantial evidence, captured in police photographs of the scene, seemingly contradict the athlete's detailed account of what happened in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14. He says he fired at Reeva Steenkamp, believing her to be an intruder, but the prosecution maintains it was premeditated murder.
Silently staring at a court monitor showing a photograph of his bedroom, which he previously said he could find no fault with, Pistorius drew a breath. The image showed a stainless steel fan standing in between the gap in the balcony's sliding doors.
"The fan couldn't have been there," he said, turning back to prosecutor Gerrie Nel. "It would have been in the way when I went out on the balcony to call for help."
"Yes," said Nel. "Yes, Mr Pistorius."
Noticing other details, the murder-accused sighed, pointing out that the position of the curtains – pulled open towards the left – were inconsistent with his version of events, as well as his pale grey bedspread, tossed onto the floor where he said he had stood.
"You see, your version is a lie," Nel said.
Pointing at the screen, Pistorius said he remembered the fan was in a different position, Nel retorting that it was impossible, as the electrical cord would not stretch that far. A debate about the length of the cable and police disturbance of the scene ensued.
The athlete said he did not see Steenkamp when he woke in the early hours of the morning, insisting it was impossible even when she got up to go the bathroom. "It was pitch black and behind me," he said, explaining that he was moving the fans and she could have gotten out of his side of the bed.
Nel's interrogation crescendoed to the statement he'd spent an hour building to. "Your version is so improbable that nobody would ever think it was reasonably possible."
Three separate times Pistorius has given his account of what happened that night, including adding further details when his testimony began on Monday. As the only living witness to the events of that morning, his honesty is the subject of intense scrutiny.
In order to cast doubt over his entire defense, the prosecution simply needs to show that he lied – even about a tiny detail.
But the circumstantial inconsistencies – and associated assertions of Pistorius' deceit – are only one facet of Nel's elaborate strategy.
The slight, sandy-haired prosecutor, nicknamed the "bull terrier" for his unrelenting style of questioning, spent most of Pistorius' fourth day on the stand picking apart the character of South Africa's former golden boy.
[Slideshow: Oscar Pistorius is grilled on the witness stand]
The state's case appears to be based on a complex tapestry of the athlete's personality defects, building towards the Paralympian's intent to kill.
The other charges against him – of recklessly discharging a weapon in a public restaurant and through a car sunroof, and of illegally possessing ammunition – were initially regarded as peripheral and relatively far more minor, but they have become integral components of Nel's strategy, providing texture and detail for his grand design.
The wily prosecutor has already begun pulling together the different strands of questioning; repeating Pistorius' responses to his interrogation on the various charges, building towards his thunderous finale.
His cross-examination of the athlete has not been chronological, but thematic, pursuing evidence of Pistorius' character flaws, in an effort to show that the former global icon lies, refuses to take responsibility for his actions, understands guns and firearm regulations yet flouts the law, is a reckless danger to others, and only cares about himself: someone likely to open fire in a heartbeat – be it at his lover, or an intruder.
"You began your testimony with an apology," Nel addressed Pistorius.
"Why would you create a spectacle in court? … You never thought about how they [the Steenkamps] would feel, sitting in the public gallery? Did you think about them? Or only about Oscar Pistorius?" Nel thundered.
Going through the intimate WhatsApp messages between the couple, with which the world has now become familiar, Nel lingered on every argumentative phrase.
At the end of January, in a long message, Reeva Steenkamp wrote: "We are living in a double standard relationship where u can be mad about how I deal with stuff when u are very quick to act cold and offish when you’re unhappy... I’m scared of u sometimes and how u snap at me and of how u will react to me."
Asked to explain what he thought Steenkamp meant, he said, "I think we were maybe different people. I was maybe more sensitive..."
"But what was she scared of?" Nel asked.
"Maybe she was scared of the feelings that she has for me, and the way that I brushed them off. … Scared of how I react to what she does sometimes," Pistorius said.
Picking apart the athlete’s response to Steenkamp’s message, Nel latched on to every sentence Pistorius began with "I,” pointing out Pistorius seemed to blame her behavior – not introducing him to another male friend, not explaining her music preferences to him – as the source of tension that sparked the argument.
"My feelings were hurt," Pistorius said. "We were still getting to know each other."
Reading more of the message, Nel commented, "She says everything that was important to you messed up her day. You. You."
"I'm the girl who fell in love with u and wanted to tell u this weekend. But I’m also the girl that gets sidestepped when you are in a [expletive] mood," Steenkamp wrote.
Nel pointed out, in all the messages, "apart from the I miss you, boo boo, babas," Pistorius never used the phrase "I love you." He responded, explaining that he never wanted to say that for the first time in a text message.
"I never got the opportunity to tell her I loved her," Pistorius said, his voice cracking.
“You don’t want to take responsibility for anything, do you, Mr Pistorius?” Nel asked the athlete, sitting alone on the stand.
Nel detailed the occasions on which Pistorius appears to have shifted the blame to others: when he asked friend Darren Fresco to "take the rap" for his firearm discharge in a Johannesburg restaurant; when he blamed Steenkamp's behavior as the source of tension that sparked an argument; when he blamed his own defense attorney Barry Roux for the alleged incorrect wording of his statement and failing to effectively cross-examine several witnesses; and when he insisted that the bullets police found in his safe weren't his.
The gun enthusiast says the .38 caliber ammunition police discovered in his wardrobe safe belong to his estranged father Henke, who holds a license for the corresponding weapon.
"There were things in my safe that, even if it was in my possession, it was not for my use," Pistorius insisted, adding that he did not have a firearm that would fit the bullets.
Nel pointed out the athlete had a pending application for a gun license for a .38 caliber gun at the time.
The possession of illegal ammunition is a comparatively lesser charge, but the "bull terrier's" objective is more ambitious, seeking to cast aspersions about the athlete's integrity and honesty.
As for his own gun magazine, Pistorius admitted he sometimes keeps it in his bedside drawer, where police found it after he killed his girlfriend. He said he knew it was against the law to leave it unattended, not in a safe or strongroom.
"Reckless," repeated Nel, several times during cross-examination.
"I agree," said Pistorius.
Asked for more details of the restaurant shooting, Pistorius refused to admit that he pulled the trigger, saying Fresco was "negligent" in handing him the weapon "one up" – with a bullet in the chamber – when he asked for it.
Pointing out that the particular model of Glock pistol could only fire if the trigger was pulled, Nel turned to sarcasm, mockingly describing "the miracle" of the gun discharge.
Pistorius insisted that he'd never come across a gun with that kind of safety mechanism before, volunteering information about his own pistol. "My firearms were on a double-safety mechanism. I usually do carry one up," he said.
A ripple ran through the public gallery.
The athlete also admitted to leaving his 9mm Taurus "one up" lying on a towel, on a boat, while he went swimming with friends at a dam near Johannesburg. That happened on the day of the alleged sunroof shooting, which he denies took place at all.
"It is a fabrication," he insisted, suggesting that the two state witnesses – his ex-girlfriend Samantha Taylor and Fresco, who testified to watching him fire – had colluded with each other against him.
Crucially, the prosecutor demonstrated that Pistorius has a clear knowledge of the workings of his own weapon and its safety mechanism – which he would have had to consciously disengage before firing the shots that killed Steenkamp.
Intent to kill
Nel's questioning returned time and time again to the question of intent, on Valentine's morning. It is what will decide the athlete's fate.
"Why did you fire?" he asked Pistorius.
"Because I heard a noise coming from inside the toilet that I interpreted at that split moment as somebody coming out to attack me, my lady," the athlete responded, directing his answer to Judge Thokozile Masipa, who will decide the case.
"… So and when you heard that? You just started shooting? Accidentally, your fingers pulled the trigger?" Nel asked, with a tinge of sarcasm.
"I started shooting at that point, my lady."
"At the intruders?"
"At the door, my lady," Pistorius said.
"But in your mind, at the intruders," Nel pressed.
"What I perceived to be the intruder coming out to attack me, my lady," Pistorius responded.
"So it wasn't accidentally?"
"My lady, I'm getting confused with this 'accidentally' and 'not accidentally' …" Pistorius said. "… I don't understand, my lady. I'm saying that I didn't intend to shoot. I was pointing – my firearm was pointed at the door, because that's where I believed that somebody was.
"When I heard a noise, I didn't have time to think, and I fired my weapon. It was an accident."
This is the crux of the prosecution’s case: whether he intended to kill Reeva Steenkamp or an intruder on the other side of the door, it was still reckless and it is still murder.
Pistorius' gruelling cross-examination will continue Friday.
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- Crime & Justice
- Oscar Pistorius
- Reeva Steenkamp