The tattered defense of Oscar Pistorius


South African paralympian Oscar Pistorius yawns during his trial on April 17, 2014 at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria. (AFP PHOTO)

Two weeks ago, when Oscar Pistorius first took the stand, weepy-eyed and wan, it had seemed that anything could happen. The athlete had survived several weeks of trial. His story that he killed his girlfriend because he had mistaken her for an intruder had appeared plausible. A general consensus held that if Pistorius was to be acquitted or found guilty of murder, it would be determined by his own words.

His testimony began, strangely, with an apology. The athlete, the first double-amputee to ever compete in an Olympics, told his dead girlfriend’s family he was sorry — a move that immediately struck some lawyers as odd. Apologies are normally reserved for parole hearings, not when an accused is still at trial. “If I had an accused come to me and say, ‘Let me apologize at the beginning,’ I would stop him right there,” one lawyer told South Africa’s Mail & Guardian.

This would be just the first of many oddities, inconsistencies, and stumbles that would mar Oscar Pistorius’s defense. Today, following the adjournment of trial until May 5,  the plausibility of Pistorius’s story now seems more in doubt.

More blows came Thursday. One of his defense witnesses, Roger Dixon, contradicted Oscar Pistorius’s own testimony on a key matter, the placement of a magazine rack inside the bathroom. Then he wrote on Facebook: “It is difficult to get belief in those who will not listen because it is not what they want to hear.”

Afterward, a star pathologist who Oscar Pistorius had hired to bolster the athlete’s defense announced he would not testify when trial resumes. “No, ma’am,” Reggie Perumal, who had been hired in time to attend Steenkamp’s autopsy, told an Agence France Presse reporter. “I think you’re aware that I can’t say anything now.”

Today, Oscar Pistorius has a hunted, drawn look about him. Day by day of his testimony, as prosecutor Gerrie Nel came at him from every angle, his composure faded. Pistorius wept openly on the stand almost every day he was on it. He nearly vomited. He repeatedly offered ambiguous answers and said he “wasn’t sure.” Once, when impersonating how he sounded that the night he killed Steenkamp, his voice took on a keening falsetto.

Oscar Pistorius, who’s facing allegations of firing a gun on two separate incidents in addition to the Steenkamp murder charge, told what some call incredible tales in his testimony. He told the court he “accidentally” fired the four bullets that killed Steenkamp during a period in which, “I didn’t have time to think.”

He said one friend and an ex-girlfriend had “fabricated” two alleged incidents where he fired a gun, one of which occurred inside a restaurant. Pistorius denied shooting the gun.

“I physically didn’t discharge it,” he said. “It went off when it was in my possession, but I did not have my finger on the trigger,” he said.

“The gun went off by itself?” inquired Nel, saying that type of Glock could only have fired if someone had their finger fully on the trigger.

“I know that my finger was not on the trigger,” Pistorius affirmed.

The press has been merciless. Pistorius has “placed the blame for his legal predicament on the police, his friends, his father, an ex-girlfriend, his own lawyers, and Steenkamp herself, who was behind the door when he shot,” New Yorker writer Amy Davidson wrote.

The BBC’s Andrew Harding declared that “these past few days have been close to a disaster for Pistorius — one that largely seems to have been of his own making.”

One particularly jarring example arrived when Pistorius described Steenkamp’s last moments. Neighbors have said under oath that they heard a woman screaming — before the gun shots. Pistorius maintains that Steenkamp never screamed. He claims the only screaming that had occurred that night had been him — before the gun fired and afterward.

Nel tore into that account in an exchange that may plague Pistorius as he proceeds forward. “She’s awake,” the prosecutor said. “She’s in the toilet. You’re shouting. You’re screaming. You’re three meters from her. She would have responded. She would not have been quiet, Mr. Pistorius.”

“A woman did not scream at any point,” Pistorius said. He added: “My lady, I wish she had let me know she was there.”

RELATED: The Oscar Pistorius case, in images 

 

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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