Day 21

‘Hard Nut to Crack’ Oscar Pistorius Is Battered on the Stand

He broke down sobbing again—but that didn’t save the Paralympian from being called a liar in a brutal session with the state prosecutor on Day 21 of his murder trial Friday.


Friday’s early adjournment couldn’t come soon enough for Oscar Pistorius, who endured yet another session of psychological bruising by state prosecutor Gerrie Nel, this time over whether he was “ready to shoot” as he approached his bathroom door.

On the murder trial’s 21st day, the six-time Paralympic gold medalist denied Nel’s allegation, although he admitted he had taken off the safety on his 9 mm pistol to be ready if attacked. According to Pistorius, who shot and killed his girlfriend of four months in his bathroom in the early hours of February 14, 2013, there is a “massive difference” between that sort of preparation and actively intending to kill someone.

Nel was not convinced, nor was he persuaded by Pistorius’s insistence that Steenkamp remained silent when he instructed her to “get down and call the police” seconds before firing four Black Talon bullets through his bathroom door. Pistorius has stood by his claim that he fired believing an intruder had entered his home through an open window and that he was attempting to “put [himself] between the perceived danger and Reeva.”

“She is 3 meters away from you in the toilet and she never uttered a word. It’s not possible!” replied Nel, who earlier was reprimanded by Judge Masipa for repeatedly calling Pistorius a liar during the cross-examination at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa. “There is no way you are going to convince the court that she stood there saying nothing. Why would she not say anything?”

“She would’ve been terrified, but I don’t think that would’ve led her to call out,” Pistorius responded.

The Paralympian explained how he had “whispered” to Steenkamp before firing, although he later denied whispering and instead said he spoke in a “soft manner.” Nel asked Pistorius why he never took the time to ascertain Steenkamp’s whereabouts, playing to the legal concept of negligence by suggesting that Pistorius repeatedly failed to do what a reasonable person would.

“I never waited for a response,” Pistorius answered. “My whole body was fixated on the threat.”

As with previous days on the stand, Pistorius broke down in debilitating sobs several times during the proceedings, though he garnered no sympathy from Nel, who said he found it convenient that Pistorius grew emotional the moment questions “got difficult.”

Earlier, Nel continued his assault on Pistorius’s testimony by pointing out that the pair of jeans Pistorius allegedly had picked up to toss over a nearby LED light that was bothering him had landed on the duvet, which had been lying on the floor next to an electric fan when Warrant Officer Barend van Staden had photographed the scene. Pistorius had testified that it was at this point that he heard a noise and couldn’t remember whether he had retrieved the pair of jeans. Pistorius also insisted that the duvet was on the bed at the time of the killing and that the police had moved several items at the crime scene during their investigation. Nel’s conjecture here is that the duvet would have had to have been on the floor at the time Pistorius heard the noise because the pair of jeans remained on top, which could support Nel’s insistence that Pistorius is lying on the stand.

Nel’s rigorous and at times rancorous treatment of Pistorius’s cross-examination has drawn its own headlines this week. While defense lawyer Barry Roux has been criticized for being too belligerent and derisive with state witnesses, Nel’s relentless hammering of the accused has led to official complaints to the Human Rights Commission of South Africa. “We have received an email with an intention to lodge a complaint over the utterances made in court,” the commission’s spokesman, Isaac Mangena, said Friday.

“How far do you push an accused before you lose the sympathy of a judge?” asked the Mail & Guardian reporter Phillip de Wet.

But others have argued that the establishment of the truth can only come from thorough and unrestrained courtroom examination. “It may appear to the general public that [Nel] is out of line, but honestly, if you’re a skilled prosecutor like Gerrie, this really is standard procedure,” said Angela Neill, a former high court advocate who once worked with Nel. “Yes, he should have known not to call Pistorius a liar, but there is a reason why he’s pushing so severely. Pistorius is a particularly hard nut to crack, and in most cases like this we would have seen far more admissions by now. I’ve seldom seen an accused as strong as Oscar, despite his emotional state.”

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The South African Paralympian has pleaded not guilty to one count of premeditated murder and two counts of reckless handling of a firearm in public. If found guilty, he could face life in prison, which means a minimum sentence of 25 years under South African law.

Court resumes on Monday at 3:30 a.m. ET.