After Sobs, Prayers and Illness in Court, Pistorius May Testify.

 
Listening to the prosecution lay out its case against him at his murder trial over the past month, Oscar Pistorius could not keep silent, or still.
He sobbed, prayed, threw up, buried his face in his hands and covered his ears, a response to the graphic and upsetting evidence, and, perhaps, to the grim reality of his own changed circumstances.
But through all the testimony — about the lethally expanding bullets he kept in his gun; about the horrific wounds suffered by the victim, his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp; about his own mercurial temperament, obsession with firearms and irrationally jealous nature — Mr. Pistorius, the world’s most famous Paralympic athlete, has not spoken in his own defense.

That will most likely change on Monday, when the case resumes after a weeklong recess and Mr. Pistorius is expected to take the stand. And though he has already provided the court with a written account of how, he says, he shot Ms. Steenkamp because he mistook her for an intruder, his testimony will be crucial as he tries to rebut the prosecution’s case: that he killed her in a violent rage as the two argued late into the night.


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Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp in Johannesburg in February 2013. Credit Reuters
“We need to know what he thought, and it’s impossible to rely on that defense without him testifying,” said Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Cape Town, referring to Mr. Pistorius’s explanation. “What other evidence can the court rely on to determine what you were thinking?”
In truth, no one else can say for sure what Mr. Pistorius was thinking in the early hours of Feb. 14, 2013, when he took his 9-millimeter pistol and pumped four shots through the bathroom door of his house while Ms. Steenkamp cowered inside, her hands folded over her face in a futile attempt to defend herself. Perhaps even he is not altogether certain. But from the defense’s point of view, the story he has told is the only one that can save him from a murder conviction.

With his charismatic good looks, fast cars and beautiful girlfriends, Mr. Pistorius, 27, is not just a world-famous sports star; he is, or was, a bona fide South African hero whose story of triumph over a disability provided an inspirational story for a nation. Born without a fibula in either leg — the fibula is the bone that runs alongside the tibia from the ankle to the knee — he had his lower legs amputated when he was a baby and became a superstar sprinter on curved carbon-fiber prostheses, campaigning successfully for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes.
He had a reputation for courage, generosity and personability. Now South Africa has been exposed to a different, ugly side of him. The meaning of his broken-man demeanor in court has been a matter of great debate here, as people discuss which part represents the real Mr. Pistorius.

That Mr. Pistorius shot and killed Ms. Steenkamp has never been in doubt, and legal experts here say he will have a tough time winning a complete acquittal. South Africa abolished trial by jury in 1969, so the case is being heard by a judge, assisted by two officials known as assessors, who might be less likely than a jury to be swayed by emotion.
The most serious charge against him, premeditated murder, is punishable by a minimum 25-year prison sentence. A lesser charge, culpable homicide, would apply if the judge determined that Mr. Pistorius believed that he was in danger and acted in what he thought was self-defense; the penalty for that is at the discretion of the judge, and it does not necessarily mean prison time.

 Martin Hood, a lawyer specializing in firearms law, said that Mr. Pistorius would have a hard time squaring his actions that night with evidence that before he got his gun license, he had to pass a test showing he understood that it was illegal in South Africa to fire a gun at someone unless one was directly threatened.


He also said Mr. Pistorius’s case had been damaged by the accounts of neighbors who said they heard a man and a woman arguing, and a woman screaming, around the time the shots were fired, apparently contradicting Mr. Pistorius’s statement that he believed Ms. Steenkamp was in bed when he heard noises in the bathroom and got up to investigate.
Mr. Pistorius’s testimony will be crucial in establishing his credibility, Mr. Hood added, but will leave him at risk if the prosecution can poke holes in his account, exploit his vulnerable state or, worse, provoke him to anger.

In Ms. Phelps’s view, the most damning testimony against Mr. Pistorius came from text messages, read aloud in court, in which Ms. Steenkamp described Mr. Pistorius acting jealously and petulantly. “I’m scared of you sometimes,” she said in one.
“Up until the messages, they hadn’t put any evidence on record to explain why he would intentionally murder her,” Ms. Phelps said, speaking of the prosecution’s case.

She added: “Their version was that a man with no proven record of violence, who by all accounts was in a happy, loving relationship, woke up one day and decided to murder this girlfriend, which wasn’t plausible. This gives them plausibility.”
The trial has been expensive, and Mr. Pistorius has had to sell off the possessions he amassed so proudly at the height of his success. He recently put his house on the market. Mr. Pistorius has also lost much of the good will he worked so hard to earn. South Africans who have been following the case say they keep coming back to Mr. Pistorius’s courtroom demeanor — the tears, the retching, the apparent despair of a broken, ruined man — and many say they are not convinced.

Liza Grobler, a criminologist interviewed on the television channel News 24, said she interpreted Mr. Pistorius’s behavior as “emotional shock” stemming from his realization of “what he’s capable of doing” and the terrible effect it has had — primarily on himself. “It doesn’t prove remorse; it doesn’t prove guilt; and it doesn’t prove innocence,” she said.
In Johannesburg, Thalbani Mlalazi, 42, a businessman, said he felt an overwhelming disappointment about the case.
“You know, he was my role model,” he said.


The New York Times

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