Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 19: Prosecution goes on the offensive

Nastasya Tay

PRETORIA, South Africa – The prosecution's cross-examination of Oscar Pistorius was always expected to be tough, but the photograph – a graphic close-up of Reeva Steenkamp's brain injury – seemingly came out of nowhere during the former Olympic star's murder trial on Wednesday.

After viewing a video of himself firing a .50 caliber handgun at a watermelon – then shouting, "It's softer than brains, but [expletive] it's a zombie-stopper!" – Pistorius, 27, acknowledged his comment was, in hindsight, "distasteful."

"You can see the effect the ammunition had on a watermelon, it exploded. Am I right?" prosecutor Gerrie Nel asked.

"That's correct, my lady," Pistorius replied to the judge.

"You know that the same happened to Reeva's head," Nel said. "It exploded, have a look. We must show you, Mr. Pistorius. It had the exact same effect as the bullet that went into her head."

It was in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's morning last year when Pistorius fired four Black Talon bullets through a locked bathroom door, one of the bullets causing the fatal head injury to his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius insists he believed there to be an intruder inside the bathroom, while the prosecution contends it was pre-meditated murder.

As Pistorius spoke in court Wednesday, the bloody image of Steenkamp flashed onto the courtroom's eight screens, including one only centimeters from where the Olympian sat on the witness stand. Steenkamp's mother June covered her face with her hand.

Pistorius turned his face away from the monitor. "My lady, I was there that night I ..." his voice trailed off.

"That's it. Have a look there," Nel gestured at the screen, his voice rising. "I know you don't want to, because you don't want to take responsibility, but it's time that you look at it. Take responsibility for what you've done, Mr. Pistorius!"

"My lady, I ... I take responsibility by ... me waiting, not wanting to live my life, but waiting for my time on this stand to tell my story for the respect of Reeva and for myself," Pistorius said, his voice wavering.

"I take responsibility, but I will not look at a picture where I'm tormented by what I saw and felt that night," he continued as his breaths grew shorter.

"As I picked Reeva up, my fingers touched her head. I remember! I don't have to look at a picture, I was there!"

His voice trailed off into a hysterical, high-pitched falsetto, sounding remarkably like a woman.

Proceedings were hastily adjourned; the courtroom sat in stunned silence.

Nel's shock tactic could backfire. Several state witnesses testified to hearing "terrified" female screams, a crucial part of the prosecution's case. The defense insists the shouts were Pistorius himself.

(Pistorius' high-pitched testimony can be heard here, around the 1:55 mark.)

Pistorius also pointed out that the prosecution did not call to testify four neighbors and a fifth's housekeeper who gave statements claiming to have heard only one person screaming, him. He noted that none said they heard a woman screaming.

As he heaved with sobs on the witness stand, the athlete was comforted by his psychologist and sister, Aimee. In the front row of the public gallery, June Steenkamp sat unmoving, watching his reaction in silence.

Prosecutors said they had checked with Steenkamp's mother, warning her that they planned to use the photograph. They said she told them she wanted Pistorius to see the picture.

It was a day of combative interrogation, as Nel, a veteran prosecutor, pulled no punches and was on the offensive from the very beginning.

[Slideshow: Photos of the Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 19]

"You are a model for sportsmen, and able-bodied sportsmen all over the world?" he asked.

"I think I was," Pistorius replied. "I made a terrible mistake and …"

"You made a mistake?" Nel interrupted.

"That's correct," Pistorius said.

"You killed a person. That's what you did, isn't it?" Nel said. "You killed Reeva Steenkamp, that's what you did."

"I made a mistake," Pistorius responded.

"You're repeating it three times. What was your mistake?" Nel pressed.

"My mistake was that I took Reeva's life, my lady," Pistorius responded meekly.

"You killed her. You shot and killed her," Nel said. "Won't you take responsibility for that?"

Pistorius would not meet Nel's hard stare. "I did, my lady."

"Then say it, then … say, ‘Yes. I killed ... I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp,'" Nel said.

"I did, my lady," Pistorius responded.

Pistorius' third day of testimony began less aggressively, as defense attorney Barry Roux continued guiding him through his account of Feb. 14, 2013.

After breaking down completely and howling wildly on the stand the day before, Pistorius was initially more composed, speaking slowly between deep breaths, reliving the hours after he found his girlfriend's bloody body.

"I put her weight onto me," he told the court. "I had her head on my left shoulder ... I could feel the blood just running down on me."

Realizing then that she was still breathing, Pistorius said he pulled her into the bathroom, gently laying her head on a bathmat. Finding her cellphone in the toilet bowl, he tried to call for help, but couldn't access the iPhone without her passcode, he said.

Grabbing his own phone, Pistorius said he rang Johan Stander, a friend who lived in the estate.

"I couldn't get Reeva out. I was struggling to pick her up," said Pistorius, his voice cracking on the stand. "I was trying to pick Reeva up, but I couldn't."

Calling a local private emergency ambulance line, Pistorius said he barely remembered speaking to the operator. "But I remember him telling me to get Reeva to the hospital, that I mustn't wait for him," he said.

Pistorius' phone records show he then called his estate's security, but he doesn't remember that either.

He then ran through the house to open doors through which to carry his injured girlfriend, Pistorius said, running into one side of his double bedroom door of the wheelchair-friendly house, which features wide passages. Police photographs show damage to the wooden door.

Picking up Steenkamp in the bathroom, the athlete says he only partly recalls carrying her to the stairs, where he found Stander and Stander's daughter.

"At that point I was shouting and screaming for him to help me. ... I remember saying, 'We need to get to the hospital, we need to get to the hospital,'" Pistorius said, but Stander told him to put Steenkamp down because an ambulance was on its way.

"I had my fingers in her mouth to try to help her breathe, I had my hand on her hip to try to stop the bleeding," Pistorius said as his voice trailed to silence.

After getting some tape and plastic bags from the kitchen – Stander's daughter had said she would try to stop the bleeding – they waited.

Pistorius said a doctor then arrived: Johan Stipp, who previously testified as a state witness.

"He didn't seem like he knew what he was doing," Pistorius said of Stipp. "It seemed like he was overwhelmed by the situation."

Then the paramedics arrived.

"Reeva had already died while I was holding her, before the ambulance arrived. There was nothing more I could do for her," Pistorius said as he struggled to say the words.

He said he then cried on the kitchen floor, as police arrived, too scared to look around the corner, as every time he saw Steenkamp's body, he felt sick.

"I didn't intend to kill Reeva. I didn't intend to kill anybody," Pistorius told the court.

Pistorius said he asked the officer in charge – Col. Schoombie van Rensburg – if he could wash his hands, because the smell of blood was making him cry. He says the colonel gave him permission.

In cross-examination, Nel has doggedly pursued minute details of Pistorius' statements and testimony, from his choice of prepositions to his memory of plug points, determined to show that the athlete is lying.

But above all, the Olympian's intent when he fired his 9mm Taurus is in the spotlight.

In his plea explanation, Pistorius describes the killing as a "tragic accident."

In his spoken testimony, he described hearing a noise in the toilet. "Before I knew it, I fired four shots through the toilet door."

In cross-examination, when pressed by Nel, he repeatedly said, "I didn't have time to think about what I was doing." Pistorius said various thoughts were running through his head, including his fears of crime and his desire to protect Steenkamp.

"I shot my firearm before I had a moment to comprehend what was happening," he said.

Legal experts say his lack of consideration for the consequences of his actions points toward recklessness.

They say his testimony goes to dolus eventualis, a form of intent where an individual foresees a possibility that a specific set of events resulting in death can occur as a result of their actions, and he or she recklessly proceeds anyway.

Under South African law, it is also considered murder.

Pistorius insists he wants to "tell the truth," even if it means including details which aren't necessarily in his favor.

During testimony Tuesday, he made one critical addition to his previous written accounts: He described hearing a door slam, as he approached the bathroom.

"It could have only been the toilet door," the athlete said on the stand. "It confirmed there was people or a person in the toilet at the time."

This crucial detail – while legal experts say it contributes to the "real" threat he may have felt, as part of his argument for "putative self defence" – shows that he knew when he pulled the trigger that he was firing bullets at a person.

Pistorius' case appears to be based on the principle of "putative self defense," which can allow for a finding of "culpable homicide" – South Africa's equivalent to "manslaughter" in the United Sates – instead of murder. His testimony ticks several boxes of the elements required for self-defense: the threat must be real (the slamming door); immediate ("I was aware that these people or persons could come at me at any time"); of a magnitude that threatened his life ("I thought I could get shot as I went around the corner", "they might come up the ladder and fire their firearm").

The putative element applies where, despite all objective facts pointing to the contrary, an individual genuinely believes his or her life to be in danger: "I was overcome with fear."

Pistorius only appeared to realize the full consequences of his actions on the stand Wednesday – that whether or not he meant to kill his girlfriend, he fired shots at someone.

Nel hammered the point, asking the murder-accused again and again if he intended to fire the shots. Pistorius seemed to grow increasingly frustrated, maintaining that it was an accident, that he believed an intruder was about to attack him; but his insistences have been focused on mistaken identity, rather than about whether he meant to discharge his 9mm.

The prosecutor asked him if his growing agitation was because he was considering the implications of his answers, insinuating the athlete might be adapting his testimony.

"If I was sitting here and I wouldn't think of every implication of what I say, it would be reckless," Pistorius replied. "My life is on the line. Of course I think of every single word I say, when I'm sitting here."

"But Reeva doesn't have a life anymore," Nel shot back. "Because of what you've done, she's not alive any more. So please listen to the questions and give us the truth, and not think of the implications for you."

The athlete faces more grueling cross-examination tomorrow.

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