PRETORIA, South Africa – On the envelope, there's the word "Ozzy", "with hearts and a squiggle," Oscar Pistorius said on the stand.
Inside: a card, from the girlfriend he shot and killed on Valentine's morning last year.
"Roses are red, violets are blue …" Pistorius opens it. "And then inside she wrote, 'I think today is a good day to tell you that … I love you,' " he read, his voice trembling but clear.
The note, in neat black ballpoint letters, is signed "Reeves," with a smiley face and three kisses.
It is the first time Reeva Steenkamp told the athlete – her boyfriend of a little more than three months – "I love you." A card she asked her "baba" to only open on Valentine's Day itself.
"No further questions."
With that, defense attorney Barry Roux ended his brief re-examination.
In its case against Pistorius, the prosecution has tried to cast doubt on the relationship between the Paralympian and the model, citing WhatsApp arguments between the couple as evidence. But it appears that, as she went to sleep that evening, Steenkamp was very much in love with the star athlete, and ready to take their commitment to the next level.
Over five days of cross-examination, prosecutor Gerrie Nel has been unrelenting in his grueling questioning, taking every opportunity to paint a picture of a Valentine's morning fraught with anger; a lovers' quarrel that ended in tragedy.
Nicknamed the "bull terrier," he finished his interrogation with a strident summary of his case.
Several neighbours heard "Reeva's bloodcurdling screams, not yours," Nel told Pistorius.
"I don't agree, my lady," Pistorius replied to the judge, quietly, in the face of an animated Nel.
"… That they heard that when she escaped from you. That's why she screamed like that," Nel pressed.
"No, I don't agree," said Pistorius.
"You fired four shots through that door whilst knowing that she was standing behind the door …"
"That's incorrect, my lady," the athlete interrupted.
"… That you knew that she was talking to you…"
"That's incorrect, my lady," Pistorius said. But the accusations went on, rising to a crescendo.
"She was locked into the toilet. You armed yourself with the sole purpose of shooting and killing her, and that's what you did," Nel declared.
"That's not true, my lady," Pistorius protested.
"Afterwards, indeed, you were overcome by what you'd done, that is true…"
"That is true, my lady," Pistorius agreed.
"… Only because it was your intention to kill her. You realized that," Nel finished.
"On the opposite, my lady," Pistorius said calmly.
It was the most composed the emotional athlete has been in days, having previously been driven to tearful outbursts and wild sobs by Nel's pointed questioning and insinuations of murderous intent. Most crucially, during his cross-examination, Pistorius appeared confused.
Cleaning up the legal mess
Several times under interrogation by Nel over the past week Pistorius said, "I shot without thinking," and, "I didn't mean to kill anyone."
Of the moment he pulled the trigger, he had explained, "Before I knew it, I had fired four shots."
The phrases – seemingly suggesting that Pistorius shot involuntarily – created ambiguity about his defense strategy, a point the prosecutor took great delight in highlighting.
Tuesday, Roux tried to mop up the mess during his re-examination, which took less than 13 minutes.
Roux asked: How did you feel, when you were staring at the toilet door?
"I was terrified, I feared for my life, I was scared. I was thinking about what could happen to me, to Reeva. I was just extremely fearful, overcome with a sense of terror and vulnerability," Pistorius said, returning to his initial defense of "putative self defense."
Describing his "complete terror and helplessness" when he heard what he thought was the door opening, Roux guided the athlete back towards demonstrating that he feared for his life.
"Did you consciously pull the trigger or not?" Roux asked.
"Not, my lady. I didn't think about pulling the trigger. As soon as I heard the noise, before I could think, I pulled the trigger," Pistorius said.
"But you pulled the trigger?" Roux asked, steering his client away from an "involuntary action" defense, notoriously difficult to prove.
"That's correct, my lady," Pistorius replied.
With much of the state's case based on circumstantial evidence and derived from "reasonable" possibilities, the defense is focusing on using expert interpretations of existing evidence to cast sufficient doubt on the prosecution's narrative, that Pistorius shot in anger, not fear, through a locked toilet door.
The third witness for the defense is forensic consultant Roger Dixon, a former head of materials science at the police forensic laboratory – a job now held by state forensic expert Col. Gerhard Vermeulen, who testified about the cricket bat damage on the toilet door.
Dixon said his team conducted tests – both on sound and light – trying to recreate the scenario in the athlete's home on Valentine's Day last year, in order to address some of the greatest points of contention in the athlete's account of events.
On a moonless night – as it would have been at 3 a.m. on that Valentine's morning – Dixon returned to Pistorius' bedroom, turning off the lights and drawing the curtains. "I couldn't see anything at all, not even my hand in front of my face," he told the court, also confirming the existence of a "small blue light" on the athlete's sound system.
State witness Johan Stipp – a neighbor with line of sight to Pistorius' bathroom window – said he saw the light on in the bathroom, with a dim glow from the toilet window, and a figure moving past the main bathroom window.
Referencing photographs of his tests, Dixon showed that in order for Pistorius to be easily visible from the window, the double-amputee had to be wearing his prostheses – which matches the athlete's account of events. The forensic consultant also demonstrated that for any light to be emanating from the toilet window, the toilet door had to be partly open – which also tallies with Pistorius' assertion that he broke the door with a cricket bat, while wearing his prosthetic legs.
Dixon confirmed police findings that the cricket bat hits came after the bullets were fired through the toilet door, but also pointed out a mark – a patch of white fluff – seemingly made by contact with Pistorius' sock, during a "forceful kick" which also left a mark on the Paralympian's prosthesis. That's also in line with the athlete's story, and uninvestigated by the police.
With the aid of close-up photographs, Dixon detailed how the marks on the door could only be made by three blows with the cricket bat – again, in line with Pistorius' testimony; Vermeulen insisted there were only two.
Despite contradictory insistences by police ballistics expert Chris Mangena, Dixon was also definitive in his testimony. The bruises on Steenkamp's back must have been caused by the only hard surface in the toilet: the magazine rack.
"I cannot conceive of a scenario where that was caused by a ricochet," Dixon told the court, adding that, given the fragments in the cubicle and the bullet found in the toilet bowl, there was not a smooth enough projectile to cause such injuries.
It casts doubt over the way in which Steenkamp fell – and her position when she received her injuries.
Showing the courtroom photographs of similar tests he conducted, Dixon also said Steenkamp's injuries from wood splinters suggested she would have likely been as close as 20 centimeters to the toilet door, reaching for the door handle – an unlikely scenario if she was frightened of Pistorius, and hiding from him, as the state contends.
The defense played a portion of the recorded sound tests Dixon conducted with a cricket bat striking an identical Maranti door from Pistorius' home, to be compared with gunshots through the same door in the coming days. The thuds were sharp – with several demonstrated in rapid succession.
"It takes a lot of force to break that door," said the forensic expert, grinning, as he spoke of the residual pain in his forearm.
An incremental case of murder?
The prosecution's case is based on what has come to be Nel's catchphrase during his cross-examination of Pistorius: "Your version is so improbable, it can't be reasonably possible."
It is a case built incrementally, out of minute details, each building towards less believability for the athlete's version.
Pistorius did not help himself on the stand, conflating information he gained retrospectively with his memories of Valentine's morning, and speculating at the invitation of the wily prosecutor, allowing Nel to identify small inconsistencies – differentiating between "did" and "must have done," accusing the athlete of tailoring his evidence, even using his emotional outbursts as a means of escape from tough questions.
Ultimately, Judge Thokozile Masipa will have to decide whether the state's list of improbabilities in Pistorius' story – including critical additions to his initial bail affidavit – is reasonably conclusive enough to convict him of murder.
The list is long, but the athlete has had an answer for almost all of Nel's incredulous questions. But the prosecutor suggests that a reasonable person would have acted very differently, insinuating that the murder-accused has adapted his testimony to match the state's evidence.
Asked why he didn't scream when he found Steenkamp, bloody and injured in the toilet, Pistorius replied, "I don't know what the purpose would be of screaming, my lady. I was overcome with sadness; I was crying."
"What then would the purpose of screaming have been while you hit down the door?" persisted Nel.
"I was in panic, my lady," said Pistorius.
"Now you see her, now she's wounded. Aren't you now in even greater panic?" asked Nel.
"I'm now broken, I'm crying," Pistorius replied.
While he apologized to Steenkamp's family for taking their daughter's life, the Paralympian remains adamant he did not mean to shoot her.
"Who should we blame for the fact that you shot her?" Nel asked.
"I don't know, my lady, I was scared," said Pistorius.
"No, I'm asking you. You said we should blame you for having taken her life. … Who should we blame for you having shot her?" pressed Nel.
"My lady, I believed that there was a threat that was on my life," Pistorius said.
"So once again we shouldn't blame you for the fact that you shot her? Am I right?" Nel asked, eyebrows raised.
"I agree with Mr. Nel, my lady."
"That we shouldn't blame you. Who should we then blame? We should blame somebody. Or something. Who should we blame?" Nel asked, looking around.
"I'm not sure, my lady," Pistorius said.
It is a point the prosecution has returned to again and again: pushing the star athlete to take responsibility for his actions, condemning him for his inability to do so, even after seven days on the stand.
Forensic expert Dixon returns to the witness box Wednesday, when the judge will also rule if the case will be adjourned for two weeks over the Easter period – an application made by both prosecution and defense.
Roux says he plans to call up to another 16 witnesses, before closing the defense's case.
Click on the image below for photos from Oscar Pistorius' final day on the stand:
- Society & Culture
- Crime & Justice
- Oscar Pistorius