PRETORIA, April 6 – Oscar Pistorius is expected to take the stand as his trial resumes this week in a defence relying on forensic experts and South Africa’s notoriously high crime rate to explain how and why he shot dead his girlfriend.
The first defence witness on Monday will be Jan Botha, a pathologist, rather than Pistorius, according to Brian Webber, one of the athlete’s lawyers.
“We don’t have a choice,” said Webber, speaking by telephone. “The pathologist has personal reasons for why he has to take the stand first.”
Court resumes after Judge Thokozile Masipa called a week adjournment in the murder trial after one of her assessors, a judicial assistant, fell ill.
Webber said the week-long break was anything but restful. “If you think it’s been a week off, then good luck for you,” he said.
Pistorius will likely be the next to testify after Botha, marking the first time he speaks in public since the killing, besides pleading “not guilty, milady,” and the occasional “yes, milady” to Judge Masipa.
The 27-year-old Paralympian, who has denied the murder charge, has to explain why he fired four shots at model and aspiring television actress Reeva Steenkamp through a locked toilet door in his home on Valentine’s Day last year.
To do this, he has hired an extensive team of forensic experts to describe the events in the early hours of February 14, 2013, including an American animation firm that will visually depict the crime scene using three-dimensional computer generated images.
The experts will have to cast doubt on the state’s version of events, including testimony from witnesses who said they heard a woman screaming on the night of the murder, which would show Pistorius knew his target was Steenkamp.
– Double tap –
In the five weeks since the trial began Pistorius has in turn appeared fragile and annoyed, frequently crying in court and being physically sick when the gruesome details of Steenkamp’s death were discussed.
How the double amputee known as the “Blade Runner” will hold up during the state’s cross-examination may prove a turning point in the case.
Throughout the state’s evidence, the defence has offered an alternative version of events.
In his cross-examination of state ballistic expert Chris Mangena in March, defence lawyer Barry Roux suggested Pistorius fired two double-tap shots, making it impossible for Steenkamp to scream.
Roux also suggested it wasn’t Steenkamp the neighbours heard, but Pistorius, saying when the Paralympic gold medallist is anxious his voice pitches high “like a woman.”
As the only surviving witness to the events inside his house, Pistorius is in the best position to demonstrate he was in a loving relationship with Reeva Steenkamp and that her death was a tragic accident.
His version will likely be punitive self-defence, where he genuinely believed there was a threat – an intruder – and he acted to avoid danger.
The defence team will show that Pistorius acted as a reasonable person in the circumstances.
It helps his case that there is a uptick in violent crime in South Africa.
For the first time in six years, there is an increase in both the number and rate of murders and attempted murders in 2013, reported the South African Police Service.
“There is no hard and fast formula,” said Martin Hood, a criminal lawyer speaking from Johannesburg about punitive self-defence.
“Having said that, it’s extremely difficult to prove,” he added.
Hood says Pistorius has to prove he did what a reasonable person would have done in his situation – a difficult task.
“There was no attack,” said Hood, “that’s why it falls apart.”
Earlier, the state, led by veteran prosecutor Gerrie Nel, called upon witnesses who depicted Pistorius as gun-obsessed and hot-headed, casting doubt on the athlete’s version of events, which he was forced to give during his bail application last year.
– On the back burner –
For weeks Reeva Steenkamp’s mother, June, sat through gruesome testimony, sometimes leaving the courtroom as graphic photos of the bloody crime scene were shown to the court.
When asked if the Steenkamp family is frustrated by the slow court proceedings, Dup De Bruyn, a lawyer representing the family, said no. “I’ve schooled them well,” he said. “They take it as it comes.”
The Steenkamp family is seeking an out-of-court settlement with Pistorius for financial compensation following their daughter’s death, though negotiations have been postponed while the case is in court.
“That has been put on the back burner,” said De Bruyn, who is based in Port Elizabeth, a city in the Eastern Cape province.
Pistorius was recently spotted by local media lunching with his lawyers at an upmarket restaurant in Johannesburg.
Wearing a cream jacket and light blue shirt, the athlete laughed as he ate, a marked difference from his usual stressed appearance in court, where he is seen grinding his jaw throughout the proceedings.
The trial is now slated to run to at least mid-May.