Judge questions witness testimony in Oscar Pistorius murder trial

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By Robyn Dixon

A South African judge begins to deliver a verdict in the murder trial of Olympian Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder and three minor charges. His verdict is being delivered

After months of grueling testimony, Judge Thokozile Masipa began to deliver her verdict Thursday in the high-profile murder trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, raising questions about the reliability of testimony from neighbors who reported hearing screams from the house.

The athlete admitted that he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day last year, but said he mistook her for an intruder. Prosecutors contended that Pistorius intentionally killed her after the couple had an argument.

In a lengthy and very detailed review of evidence in the case, the judge examined in detail the testimony of neighbors of the Olympic athlete.

The state’s case of premeditated murder relied heavily on the evidence of one witness who said she heard the couple quarrel on the night of the shooting and others who said they heard a woman’s screams.

In a blow to the prosecution’s attempt to prove premeditation, Judge Masipa said the court could not rely on neighbors’ testimony on what they heard that night, since many were mistaken.

Some were confused, some were far from the Pistorius house and others failed to distinguish what they heard from what they later picked up from the media, the judge noted.

She also found the only person who could have screamed on the night of the shooting was Pistorius.

“Human beings are fallible,” Masipa said in reference to witnesses, adding that the court would instead rely on technology, including phone records, to establish what happened.

In reaching her verdict, Masipa must decide whether Pistorius’ account of what happened could reasonably be true, and if so whether he was justified and legally entitled to fire four bullets through the door of a toilet cubicle off his bathroom.

Even if the judge finds that Pistorius did not plan the killing, she could convict him of murder if she finds that he intended to kill Steenkamp when he opened fire. She could also convict him of murder if she finds that he must have known that firing four shots into the cubicle would probably kill anyone inside, whether Steenkamp or an imagined intruder.

 

.If the judge acquits Pistorius of murder, she will then examine whether he is guilty of the lesser crime of a negligent killing, known in South Africa as culpable homicide.

Pistorius pleaded not guilty to murder and to three minor charges involving the alleged discharge of a gun in a restaurant and out of a car sunroof, as well as the illegal possession of ammunition.

Pistorius gained international fame when he became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympic Games in 2012. His trial, the first to be telecast live in South Africa, fascinated the country with thousands commenting daily on Twitter, some convinced of the athlete’s innocence, others arguing he was guilty.

South Africa has no jury system. Masipa weighed the evidence and reached her verdict with the help of two assistants, called assessors. The judge had the last say on questions of law, while the decision of the majority held sway on questions of fact.

According to Pistorius, Steenkamp got up in the middle of the night without his noticing. He heard a noise in the bathroom and was convinced there was an intruder inside. Thinking Steenkamp was still in bed, he grabbed a gun, screamed at her to call the police, approached the bathroom and fired the shots that killed her.

During the trial, Pistorius at times retched and vomited as the court heard testimony on Steenkamp’s horrific injuries, including a massive head wound, a shattered hip, broken arm and a hand injury.

At other times, he wept loudly, slumped with his head in his hands, or covered his ears. But for most of the trial, he sat still, often taking notes and occasionally passing them to his legal team.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel adopted an aggressive approach, demanding that Pistorius “take responsibility” for the killing, as he showed the court a graphic photograph of Steenkamp’s head injuries.

He portrayed the athlete as self-obsessed, reckless and quick to anger. He played a video in which Pistorius fired shots into a watermelon, describing it as “softer than brain” and calling the bullet a “zombie-stopper,” as friends laughed uproariously.

The defense portrayed Pistorius as sensitive, highly fearful and anxious.

The court heard that Pistorius’ mother used to sleep with a gun under her pillow and raised her children to be extremely afraid of crime. The court also heard that Pistorius was taking anti-depressants and had a sleep disorder, but a psychiatric assessment ordered by Masipa found that he did not suffer from a mental disorder that would prevent him from understanding right and wrong.

According to the defense case, Pistorius was deeply in love with Steenkamp, and she with him. Numerous loving What’s App messages were read to the court, with pet names like Baba and Angel, and kisses.

The prosecution focused on another message from Steenkamp to Pistorius after an argument weeks before the killing: “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me and how you will react to me,” the message said.

For news from Africa, follow @RobynDixon_LAT

 

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