True to state prosecutor Gerrie Nel’s warning to Oscar Pistorius last week, it appears Nel isn’t going away anytime soon.
Known in South African legal circles as the Bulldog—or Bull Terrier, or Pitbull, depending on your source—Nel has grilled the accused Paralympian mercilessly for six days now at the Pretoria High Court, to the point where some citizens have approached the South African Human Rights Commission with complaints that Nel’s questioning has bordered on psychological torment. There are whispers that it could be another full week before Nel lets Pistorius out of the witness box, from which the defendant has cried, screamed, cursed, prayed, contradicted, and victimized himself on more than one occasion, sometimes all at once.
From this vulnerable spotlight, Pistorius has transformed himself from Paralympic golden boy to “disgusting liar,” as his slain girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp’s sister called him in a recent interview. Legal experts have called his testimony disastrous. He parted ways with his PR management firm a week into the trial, and his legal counsel might be inclined to do the same if he continues to contradict and attribute blame to defense attorney Barry Roux and his team, who have been working tirelessly for more than a year to give him a shred of hope he’ll walk out of the courtroom a free man. In the court of public opinion, however, that outcome does not seem likely, not unless Pistorius pulls a rabbit out of a hat before his time on the stand is done.
As South African advocate Angela Neill pointed out Friday, most defendants would have made at least some sort of concession at this point in cross-examination. But Pistorius didn’t get to where he is today without his Olympic-level strength of will. His proclivity for incremental emotional breakdowns, which Nel has dismissed more than once as “convenient,” belies that fact that he is a tenacious and steadfast witness, refusing to buckle under Nel’s attempts to unnerve him, which have been so severe that Judge Thokozile Masipa has intervened on more than one occasion. While that mental stamina has served Pistorius well in his years as a world-class athlete, his relentless focus has clouded his capacity for identifying what concessions could work in his favor. Even more apparent is the troubling effect that focus has had on his ability to anticipate the effect of his words and actions—a weakness that got him into this mess in the first place.
“I shot out of fear. I didn’t have time to think,” Pistorius has told the court repeatedly, referring to the incident on Valentine’s Day last year, when he fired four bullets into his bathroom door. He says he believed there was an intruder behind it. But the person behind the door was 29-year-old Steenkamp, who died almost instantly after taking bullets to the head, arm, hand, and hip. Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to a charge of premeditated murder and three contraventions of the Firearms Control Act, denying that he intended to shoot anyone, be it an intruder or Steenkamp, and that his actions were the result of a purely instinctual reflex driven by “overwhelming fear.”
He has refused to admit that he intended to kill the intruder, presumably, to stonewall the state’s attempt to go at him on the basis of dolus eventualis, a form of intention that exists when the accused foresees the possible outcome or consequences of his or her actions, regardless of whether he or she intended to cause harm. It seems almost ridiculous, if not a little cheeky, to cling to a version of events in which one claims to have fired four bullets at a target accidentally, and with zero intention of harming that target. After six days on the witness stand, however, it is feels as if glaring inconsistencies and sweeping recriminations have become the hallmark of Pistorius’s version of events.
That is the opinion, anyway, that the state is attempting to hammer home. “You are thinking every step of the way, but now in this critical instant, you didn’t think?” asked Nel, who is finding alternative ways to call Pistorius a liar after Judge Masipa reprimanded him for using the term. “The theme for the day is you tailoring your evidence,” he added Monday.
More specifically, Nel accused Pistorius of “adapting” his story as it progresses, zeroing in on a number of conspicuous details the defendant brought up Monday that failed to appear in either his bail affidavit or his plea explanation. For example, Pistorius testified that he heard the bathroom door slam loudly, something that was never mentioned in either document. Pistorius also told the court that he spoke to Steenkamp in a “low tone” before opening fire, whereas he initially referred to speaking to her in a “whisper.”
Pistorius further testified that the lights were off from the moment he woke up until the time he retrieved Steenkamp from the bathroom, a claim contradicts the testimony of the neighbors, who were adamant that the lights were on, and brings up the question: Who embarks on a feverish search for their girlfriend in pitch darkness when the most practical and instinctive first move would be to turn on a light? And on failing to locate her, why did Pistorius not check the remainder of the house before deciding that it was Steenkamp in the bathroom? If he had told her to get down and call the police, wouldn’t it be better to check downstairs to see if she had gone to seek help? And more important still, why was Pistorius running around and putting on his prosthetic legs with a cocked gun in his hand?
These are all questions Nel put to Pistorius, who contested that “nothing was normal about that night.”
“I have difficulty with the huge leap from shooting an intruder to shooting at Reeva,” Nel said of Pistorius’s testimony that it immediately dawned on him that it was Steenkamp in the bathroom.
“I understand that it doesn’t sound rational, but I didn’t have a rational state of mind,” Pistorius responded.
Pistorius also explained how he used his hands to feel around on the bed to try to establish Steenkamp’s whereabouts, yet he couldn’t give Nel a straight answer when asked whether he felt the duvet on the bed. Nel insists the duvet wasn’t there, and he showed the court a photograph of a blood-splatter pattern lashed diagonally across the carpet and the duvet, which is on the floor in the image. The pattern reinforces Nel’s belief that the duvet was on the floor at the time of the shooting—an extension of the state’s theory that Pistorius killed Steenkamp after an argument in the early hours of the morning and that he invented an alternative narrative to cover up his crime. Nel also accused Pistorius of fabricating the part of his story in which he was bothered by an LED light on the amplifier and attempted to cover it with a pair of jeans, a detail Nel says Pistorius fabricated to fill up gaps in his proposed timeline of events.
Nel quickly moved on to another crucial aspect of Pistorius’s testimony: the fact that the toilet cubicle light was off. Earlier there was some confusion about why Steenkamp would lock herself in the toilet cubicle and put herself in absolute darkness. Pistorius suggested that the reason she took her cellphone with her was to use it as a flashlight—although why she never switched a single light on during her journey from the bed to the bathroom is anyone’s guess. Nel called this last detail “devastating” for Pistorius’s defense, for in seeking to conceal the LED light on the amplifier in front of him, Pistorius was placed in such a way that he must have seen the cellphone light in his peripheral vision.
“You’re building a version that is so improbable that no one would ever believe you,” Nel told Pistorius, who twice broke down in tears during his testimony.
There was also a brief return to the issue of whether Steenkamp ate after their dinner that night. Pistorius insists she didn’t, while experts have concluded that if she didn’t, all food should have been digested well within the eight hours between dinner and her death. But her stomach was not empty, and Pistorius’s claims inadvertently brought his own version of events into question, something he is doing more and more as his testimony progresses. Nel has told Pistorius on several occasions not to “argue” and instead “answer,” implying that the preconceived answers or preemptive evidence-tailoring that Nel has accused the defendant of is resulting in bizarre testimony that chips away at the credibility of his own narrative. If Pistorius wants the remainder of his testimony to go his way, he will need to start listening to Nel—and start thinking before speaking.
Court resumes Tuesday at 3:30 a.m. ET.