Pistorius trial: Be wary of certainties

Mr Pistorius holds his head in his hand on the fifth day of his trial Image copyright AFP
Image caption While Mr Pistorius has seemed distraught, his legal team has scored successes - and may yet score more

If you are reading this you have probably been following the Pistorius trial this week. And if you've been following the trial, you've probably got a pretty strong view already about whether or not the athlete deliberately murdered Reeva Steenkamp.

But please, hear me out.

If these past five days of testimony and cross-examination have shown me anything it is this: Be wary of certainties.

Here's what I mean.

Strip aside the drama of hearing about Reeva's body, and a desperate Oscar crouched over her. Put to one side, for now, the interesting, but peripheral tales of dangerous gunplay on the roads and in a crowded restaurant. Yes, he may very well have been an insufferably arrogant, pumped-up athlete wrestling with the challenges of modern celebrity. And focus instead on what this week's key prosecution witnesses have really been brought in to show.

I'm talking about the neighbours who heard the screams, the gunshots, and the noises that sounded like gunshots.

You'll remember the husband and wife who stuck, despite the best efforts of defence counsel Barry Roux - by turns aggressive, soothing and needling - to their belief that they had heard a woman's desperate screams before hearing gunshots. And their categorical refusal to accept the possibility they might have mistaken the sound of a cricket bat hitting a door for those gunshots.

Fair enough. It's what they heard.

But then came Dr Johan Stipp, another neighbour who lived far closer to Pistorius' house, directly overlooking his bathroom, and who can only have had a better chance to hear those screams and bangs.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Pugnacious Defence Counsel Barry Roux demonstrated that neighbours might be wrong about what they heard
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption But Prosecutor Gerrie Nel also landed a blow when he asked Mr Pistorius' ex-girlfriend about previous times the athelete thought there was an intruder: She said he always woke her up before investigating

For me, the most telling moment this week was when Dr Stipp revealed that he had heard not one, but two sets of bangs, separated by screams and silence. In all he had heard at least five, and possibly six bangs. Two or three, then another three. Both sets sounded, to Dr Stipp - a man with military training - like gunshots.

"But that cannot be," declared Barry Roux triumphantly. And for once his showman's swagger seemed justified. He pointed out that forensic evidence will confirm only four shots were fired that night. The witness stuck to his story. But the defence had done its job. It had clearly demonstrated that the doctor, and therefore the other neighbours too, must have been mistaken about at least some of what they had heard.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that Pistorius is innocent. Nor, for that matter, am I suggesting that the restaurant and sunroof incidents won't come back to damage him later in the trial, especially if the judge starts thinking about culpable homicide or any other charge lower than premeditated murder.

But remember, the state's case is one of premeditated murder. And the onus is on the prosecution to prove that Pistorius' version of events cannot, reasonably, be correct.

And so far, in my opinion, they have not landed any knockout blows.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Reeva Steenkamp was also a celebrity in South Africa

Of course this trial is still in its early stages. The prosecution has only just begun to set out its case. But this week we've also caught glimpses, from the defence, of the microscopically detailed timeline they've constructed - backed up by phone records, expensive acoustic tests and other paraphernalia - to support Pistorius' description of what happened that night.

Huge questions still hang in the air. When did the bathroom lights go on, why was he on a different side of bed from the one he usually slept on, where were his phones, did he hit the door first and then shoot at it or vice versa, what will the post-mortem examination reveal, how close to the door was he standing when he fired, and will anything of significance crop up on all those mobile phones?

Perhaps the prosecution is waiting to play its trump card.

After a riveting week in court, my suspicion is that the premeditated murder trial will hinge not on the evidence of neighbours, or even the security guard's recollections of the athlete telling him "everything is fine," but on forensic evidence from the crime scene itself.

But let's be patient. If a cricket bat can sound like a gun, what other certainties can evaporate?

And then there's the 'other' trial. As I argued here before it started, it is perfectly possible that Pistorius could be cleared of premeditated murder, and still be found guilty and jailed for shooting at a bathroom door in the middle of the night when he clearly cannot have known what threat was posed by whoever stood behind it.

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