Oscar Pistorius trial: 'Bull terrier' takes centre stage

State prosecutor Gerrie Nel cross-examining Oscar Pistorius during his trial at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on April 9, 2014 Gerrie Nel: Reputation for being a ruthless and merciless prosecutor

Oscar Pistorius felt first-hand the bite of prosecutor Gerrie Nel minutes into his cross-examination at his murder trial.

Mr Nel is known as "the bull terrier" in court circles, and now the whole world is beginning to see why.

He has a reputation for being ruthless and merciless in his bid to get to the truth.

When asked by Mr Nel about his stature as a role model, the Paralympic gold medal winner replied: "I think I was. I made a terrible mistake."

And that is when Mr Nel pounced.

"You made a mistake? You killed someone. You killed Reeva, that's what you did.

"Say: 'Yes, I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp,'" he demanded.

"I did," Mr Pistorius replied, in a barely audible voice.

It was a sign of things to come.

Graphic moment

Later Mr Nel showed the court a picture of Ms Steenkamp's head after the shooting. It was possibly the most graphic moment since the start of the trial.

Gasps and sighs filled the courtroom as Mr Nel thundered on.

"Look at it," he shouted at Mr Pistorius.

The athlete could not.

Through tears, he told the court he had cradled Ms Steenkamp's head and remembered how it had looked - he said he was "tormented" by it.

But Mr Nel was unrelenting.

The court was shown a Sky News report showing Pistorius at a shooting range

He described Ms Steenkamp's head as having "exploded" - just like a watermelon Mr Pistorius had shot at a shooting range.

The prosecutor was referring to a video he played in court which showed Mr Pistorius firing at the fruit.

With laughter heard in the background of the video, Mr Pistorius is heard exclaiming: "It's softer than brain… it's like a zombie stopper."

The athlete says he now regrets making those comments.

'Anything goes'

Some have raised questions about Mr Nel's aggressive approach, but as respected South African legal expert Llewellyn Curlewis puts it: "This is what happens in court every day."

This is the best and worst of the criminal justice system on display.

"Cross-examination is the biggest single way to get to the truth of the matter," says Mr Curlewis, president of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces of South Africa.

"Anything goes. The accused's lawyer is there to object if there is a need."

Gerrie Nel: Fierce prosecutor

South African Prosecutor Gerrie Nel
  • One of South Africa's most respected legal minds
  • Known for his no-nonsense attitude inside the courtroom
  • More than 30 years' experience
  • No stranger to high-profile cases - prosecuted former police boss Jackie Selebi on corruption charges, calling him an "arrogant liar" during cross-examination
  • Widely praised for his meticulous attention to detail

Mr Curlewis explains that at any point the judge can intervene if she believes the witness is being badgered.

However, as this is a serious criminal matter, she will also not want to be seen as interfering during cross-examination - the crucial point where cases are often made or broken.

Mr Curlewis says justice must be served and sometimes that means through extreme means.

Mr Pistorius sometimes gives elaborate answers in court - to the annoyance of the prosecutor.

He was more composed in court today - his third day on the stand - except for a few moments of crying.

Mr Nel has begun pointing to a few alleged inconsistencies in his version of events in the early hours of 14 February 2013 when he shot dead his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Prosecutors say he intentionally killed her after a row, but Mr Pistorius insists he mistook her for an intruder.

Mr Nel is comparing Mr Pistorius' bail application (made last year) with his plea explanation (made when the trial opened) and his testimony this week.

In the same way that the athlete's lawyer picked apart the testimony of state witnesses, so Mr Pistorius can expect the same treatment from Mr Nel.

When the grisly photograph of Ms Steenkamp's head was shown, her mother, June Steenkamp, sat quietly and looked on as the image appeared on the screen.

The prosecution had apparently warned her prior to using the image, explaining the importance of using shock tactics.

She told reporters later she understood this approach.

'Not surprising'

The athlete's family, who were clearly taken by surprise, were not happy.

During an adjournment, family members could be seen speaking to his lawyers.

They felt the display was uncalled for. Mr Curlewis does not agree.

"I was not surprised whatsoever," he says.

"I would have been surprised if he hadn't. In fact, we should expect more pictures from the crime scene."

Due to the nature of many of South Africa's violent crimes, seeing images of brutalised and even mutilated bodies is not uncommon during court proceedings.

The only difference here is that this case is being broadcast to the world, so the barometer for what is and is not appropriate varies.

This was always going to be a gamble when inviting the world into the courtroom.

"It was unfortunate but it wasn't Mr Nel's doing," says Mr Curlewis.

This is what the men and women working in the country's legal system are faced with every day.

The justice system is under pressure to dispel any perceptions that Mr Pistorius will be treated differently because of his celebrity.

They want to show that he is equal in the eyes of the law, part of the reason why the media is being allowed to broadcast this case live - a first here.

South African courts pride themselves on their independence - a reputation they guard jealously.

While there will be uncomfortable moments for all concerned, Mr Curlewis says the accused has his lawyers to defend him if they feel he is being treated unfairly.

Apart from that, this is a fight for the truth - and at times it will get ugly.

INTERACTIVE
  • ×

  • 1. Balcony

    × Balcony

    Mr Pistorius said in his statement at the start of the trial that he woke in the early hours and walked on his stumps to the balcony, pulled in two fans, closed the sliding door and drew curtains. He said that shortly before he had spoken to Reeva, who was in bed beside him.

    He said he rejected prosecution claims that a witness heard arguing coming from the house before the shooting.

  • 2. Bathroom window

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he heard the bathroom window sliding open and believed that an intruder, or intruders, had entered the bathroom through a window which was not fitted with burglar bars.

    "Unbeknown to me, Reeva must have gone to the toilet in the bathroom at the time I brought in the fans," he said.

    Mr Pistorius said he approached the bathroom armed with his firearm, to defend himself and his girlfriend, believing Ms Steenkamp was still in bed.

  • 3. Shooting

    ×

    Both sides agree four bullets were fired. Ms Steenkamp was hit three times.

    Mr Pistorius said he fired his weapon after hearing a noise in the toilet which he thought was the intruder coming out of the toilet to attack him and Ms Steenkamp.

    He said he was in a fearful state, knowing he was on his stumps and unable to run away or properly defend himself.

    Mr Pistorius said he rejected claims that he was on his prostheses when he shot at the door.

    A witness told the trial she woke to hear a woman screaming and a man shouting for help. She said that after the screams she heard four shots.

  • 4. Bedroom

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bedroom after shooting at the toilet door, still shouting for Reeva. Lifting himself up onto the bed, he felt over to the right hand side of it and noticed Ms Steenkamp was not there.

    Mr Pistorius said this was when he realised she could have been in the toilet.

  • 5. Toilet door

    ×

    Mr Pistorius said he went back to the bathroom but the toilet was locked, so he returned to the bedroom, pulled on his prosthetic legs, turned on the lights before bashing in the toilet door with a cricket bat.

    Forensics expert Johannes Vermeulen told the court that the height of the marks on the door caused by the cricket bat suggest Mr Pistorius was on his stumps at the time.

  • 6. Emergency calls

    ×

    Mr Pistorius's defence team say he then called security at the gated housing complex and a private paramedic service before carrying Ms Steenkamp downstairs.

    A security guard claimed it was the other way round, and he had called Mr Pistorius first after reports of gunfire. However, phone records shown to the court revealed Mr Pistorius called the estate manager at 3:19am, a minute later he called the ambulance service and at 3:21am he called estate security.

    A minute later he received an incoming call - estate security calling him back.

    According to police phone expert Francois Moller, Mr Pistorius called his friend Justin Divaris a short time later and just after 4:00am he called his brother Carl.

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