It has been a riveting day of testimony at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria as state prosecutor GerrieNel launched a dramatic assault on Oscar Pistorius, who has been on the witness stand since Monday. Nel, who up until now had appeared to be a relatively unassuming figure during the state’s case, today demonstrated exactly why he is known as ‘The Bulldog’ within South African legal circles.
“You are a model for sportsmen, disabled and abled bodied sportsmen, all over the world?” Nel asked as he initiated his cross-examination of the six-time Paralympic gold medalistaccused of killing his 29-year-old girlfriend, ReevaSteenkamp.
From the outset, Nel played to the question of Pistorius’s accountability, asking him about his Christian principles and whether he recognized his obligation as a role model for those who viewed him as an aspirational sporting figure. Nel aggressively interjected as Pistorius responded that he had “made a terrible mistake.”
“You killed a person, that’s what you did,” Nelsaid abrasively, asking Pistorius to repeat him. “Say it. Say: ‘I shot and killed her'! You have the responsibility to tell the truth.”
Pistorius never explicitly stated that he shot and killed Steenkamp, as Nel did repeatedly, only that he “took her life.” It’s the same careful rhetoric that we’ve seen from Pistorius before, one that clearly agitated Nel, who spent a great of the trial reprimanding Pistorius based not on his answers, but how he was answering:
“Mr. Pistorius, please answer the question. Don’t argue with me. If you argue or think about other evidence you will get into trouble," Nel scoffed, implying that the accused was coating his responses with unsolicited or irrelevant details in order to avoid answering questions directly. “You’re arguing, you’re not answering. You’re not sorry, because sorry doesn’t answer the question of why.”
“The absolute worst mistake that a witness can make is to start babbling, particularly in these circumstances,” says South African expert trial lawyer Renier Spies, who has been a vocal commentator throughout the case. “One should never tender information when it is simply not necessary, and Pistorius has this need to tender all the time.”
In what was irrefutably the most provocative moment in the trial thus far, Nel requested that a graphic close-up of Steenkamp’s head injury be shown to Pistorius and the court (and all those watching via live broadcast), at which point Pistorius began to sob uncontrollably.
“Look at it!” said Nel, “Take responsibility for what you did! I know you don’t want to see this, but look at it!”
“I will not look at a picture where I’m tormented by what I saw and felt that night!” Pistorius yelled back over the muffled gasps that emanated from the rest of the courtroom. “I don’t have to look at a picture, I was there!”
Earlier Nel had confronted Pistorius with a news segment obtained from Britain’s Sky News (which is available online) that showed footage of Pistorius firing a .50 caliber handgun at a watermelon while visiting the gun range managed by Sean Renns, the firearms specialist who testified in court a few weeks ago. On hitting his target, Pistorius yelled, in a zealous tone: “It’s a lot softer than brain, but f**k it’s like a zombie stopper!”
Pistorius claims he did not recall using the term “zombie stopper,” although he conceded that it was his voice in the video and that his choice of words was “distasteful.”
Why the footage was not submitted as evidence prior to the trial was not explained publicly, although it’s more than likely the defense would have objected to it, as they did today, on the grounds that the video was not directly relevant to the trial and that the contents fell under character evidence, which is inadmissible in this particular trial situation under South Africa law.
Nel justified his actions by telling the court that the video was already in the public domain, and that he was using the content primarily as a talking point in his cross-examination and not necessarily as evidence: “We don’t investigate a case on the character of the accused,” Nel reiterated, “but once the accused opens the avenues for character evidence, then one will lead that. I asked the witness if he would like to see it. It was in the public domain, it was on Sky News. He said he would like to see it.”
Judge Masipa allowed the video to be aired after a brief adjournment so that both sets of counsel could negotiate the matter.
While his primary objective was to unearth further evidence that could shed light on exactly what happened on the night of February 14 last year, Nel also seemed to be trying to sway the perception of Pistorius’s character away from any semblance of sympathy he may have won under the defense’s questioning.The combination of the two contentious images brought forth by the state was clearly a strategic move on Nel’s part in order to knock Pistorius off-kilter. If he succeeds in doing so during the remainder of his interrogation, this could be a huge blow for defense attorney Barry Roux, who has moved cautiously to ensure that the image of Pistorius as the tragic victim of his own poor judgment remains intact. According to Spies, the video “in conjunction with the image of Reeva, will live in the minds of many and Gerrie Nel did exactly what he set out to do, and changed within minutes the impression of Pistorius on the minds [of the public].”
Court adjourned just before 3pm, with Nel signing off with a warning to Pistorius that he “was not going away.” According to South African journalist Rebecca Davis, Nel grilled former South African police commissioner Jackie Selebi (who was convicted in 2010 on charges of corruption) for eight days straight before allowing him to step down from the witness box. It’s unlikely he’ll treat Pistorius any differently.
Court resumes tomorrow at 3:30 a.m. ET.