Oscar Pistorius trial: what to expect from closing arguments

Oscar Pistorius in the dock in Pretoria

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel and Oscar Pistorius's defence lawyer Barry Roux go head to head once more

LAST UPDATED AT 07:42 ON Thu 31 Jul 2014

The final stages of the Oscar Pistorius trial are drawing near, with both sides due to give their closing arguments in court next week. The prosecution was due to file its written statement to Judge Thokozile Masipa yesterday and the defence will do so on Monday, before the court reconvenes on Thursday.

Pistorius faces up to 25 years in prison if he is found guilty of deliberately murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day last year. So what can we expect when prosecutor Gerrie Nel and defence lawyer Barry Roux go head to head once more?

Prosecution: Gerrie Nel's closing arguments

Nicknamed 'The Pit Bull', Nel has subjected Pistorius and the defence witnesses to a series of gruelling cross-examinations. When he goes before Judge Masipa on Thursday he is likely to paint Pistorius as a gun-loving, egotistical, jealous boyfriend who would blame anyone but himself for his mistakes.

Nel will summarise the prosecution's case that Pistorius had a heated argument with Steenkamp before deliberately shooting her after she locked herself in the toilet. This contrasts with the athlete's claim that he mistook his girlfriend for a dangerous intruder. The prosecutor has previously told Pistorius that his version is "not only untruthful but it's so improbable that it cannot be reasonably, possibly true". The court can expect to be reminded of any inconsistencies in the defence's case, particularly in the athlete's own teary testimony.

To back his case, Nel is likely to draw on the testimonies of state witnesses, including five neighbours who heard a woman screaming on the night Steenkamp was shot, a ballistics expert who claims she would have had time to scream before she died and a handful of WhatsApp messages that suggested she was "scared" of Pistorius.

Defence: Barry Roux's closing arguments

In contrast with Nel's case, Roux has sought to show Pistorius's life as marked by tragedy and a "profound fear of crime", from his mother's death and his double leg amputation to being followed home, burgled and shot at on a motorway.

Roux too will try to pick holes in the opposition's case. The seasoned courtroom performer has been compared to OJ Simpson's lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who famously secured the footballer a not guilty verdict. In the same way that Cochran challenged every piece of police department evidence to set his client free, Roux too has highlighted the police's shoddy handling of the case. One officer picked up Pistorius's weapon without gloves, another walked over the door Steenkamp was shot through and one of the athlete's watches went missing from the crime scene.

Over the course of the trial, Roux has often been seen leafing through his notes and casually sucking on his glasses as if uncertain of what to ask next – before going straight for the witness's jugular. Investigating officer Hilton Botha was left a sweating mess after a bail hearing and resigned shortly afterwards. Roux has worked hard to prove there is room for doubt in the testimonies of the state's witnesses – and it is "reasonable doubt" that Judge Masipa needs in order to deliver a not guilty verdict for premeditated murder.

Pistorius cannot dodge jail with murder acquittal alone

Oscar Pistorius: what he would face in South African prison

18 July

Oscar Pistorius faces up to 25 years in prison if he is convicted of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The high-profile case, which is finally drawing to a close, has shed a unique light on South Africa's justice system, as well as the country's prisons.

Conditions vary, but one major nationwide issue is overcrowding. The overall prison population in South Africa stands at 157,394, the highest on the continent, according to the latest statistics from the International Centre for Prison Studies. The country's prisons have an occupancy rate of 128 per cent, putting a strain on sanitation, ventilation and medical care.

In some prisons, inmates are kept locked up for 23 hours a day, with just one hour outside their cell. In one prison, the government is investigating claims that inmates were punished with electric shocks, beatings and forced injections.

More than a quarter of South Africa's inmates are pre-trial detainees – an endurance test Pistorius has managed to avoid as he is out on bail. Living conditions for these 44,000 remand detainees have been described as even worse than for sentenced offenders.

One paraplegic man awaiting trial in South Africa told The Guardian he was among 88 men in one cell designed for 32, all sharing one toilet and one shower. The food, he said, was covered in flies and prisoners die in the cells because they cannot get medical attention.

The country's Department of Correctional Services revealed that 650 rapes had been reported in South Africa's prisons between 2010 and 2013. But human rights organisations, such as Just Detention, believe that sexual violence in jails goes "gravely underreported". One young inmate who went to Pretoria High Court last year in an attempt to improve his living arrangements claimed he feared for his life in jail, that he had been raped several times and also contracted HIV.

Laurie Pieters, an offender profiler and criminologist, has described prison in South Africa as "notoriously a very dangerous place" and believes Pistorius would be targeted for his disability as well as his notoriety. "Everybody knows who he is. You are going to have one lot targeting him for money and then maybe even others offering him protection for money," he told the Daily Telegraph.

However, Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, project coordinator for Johannesburg civil rights group Wits Justice Project, believes the athlete's medical needs would be taken into account. She told CNN he could be sent to a prison with better medical facilities or wheelchair access.

Defence and prosecution lawyers are due to make their final arguments in front of the Judge Thokozile Masipa on 7 August. As CNN says, Pistorius's lawyers will be fighting hard to make sure he can avoid a stint behind bars.


Oscar Pistorius involved in nightclub fight

15 July

Witnesses to a brawl in a South African nightclub say Oscar Pistorius was "drunk and aggressive" this weekend when he got into a fight over the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend of three months whom he shot dead last year.

Pistorius is currently standing trial for Steenkamp's murder. He admits shooting her but says he believed she was an intruder hiding in his bathroom.

The Daily Telegraph says Pistorius got into the fight on Saturday evening in VIP room of a Johannesburg nightclub. A spokesman for the 27-year-old athlete confirmed that the altercation took place but said the other party was the aggressor. 

According to the Pistorius camp, he was sitting quietly when the man, named by South African gossip site The Juice as Jared Mortimer, approached him and "aggressively engage[d] him on matters relating to the trial".

Pistorius left the club soon after and now "regrets the decision to go into a public place and thereby inviting unwelcome attention", his spokeswoman said.

According to Mortimer, however, Pistorius was "drunk and very aggressive" and poked Mortimer in the chest, telling him how influential his family was and insisting that they "owned" South African president Jacob Zuma.

Mortimer told The Juice: "He said you'll never get the better of me. I'll always get the better of you." Annoyed by being poked in the chest and pulled around the neck, Mortimer alleges he pushed Pistorius over, leading bouncers to intervene.

The brawl came just hours before the athlete broke his long silence on Twitter. Once a prolific user of the micro-blogging site, Pistorius has only tweeted once in the 12 months since he killed Steenkamp.

The day after the fight, however, he began to post again (see below) – including a lengthy quotation which seemed to compare his own recent life to the ordeal suffered by holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.


Oscar Pistorius breaks Twitter silence with holocaust text 

14 July

South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, on trial for murder after shooting dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has broken his silence on Twitter by quoting a holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl.

Pistorius was a prolific user of the micro-blogging site until Steenkamp's death in February last year. After he killed her under contested circumstances – he claims he mistook her for an intruder – Pistorius stopped using the site for a year. 

Then, on the first anniversary of the Valentine's Day shooting, Pistorius used Twitter to advertise a short tribute he had posted on his own website. He then fell silent again, until yesterday when he tweeted three times, says the Daily Mirror.

The first tweet is a collage of photographs of Pistorius posing with disabled children, presumably taken before Steenkamp's death, to illustrate the text: "You have the ability to make a difference in someones [sic] life. Sometimes it's the simple things you say or do that can make someone feel better or inspire them."

The third post is a religious text - but the second is the most revealing and has attracted the most attention. It is a photograph of a page of text from Man's Search for Meaning, a seminal 1946 work by psychologist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl:


Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz at the age of 39. His wife, brother, father and mother all died in concentration camps. Man's Search for Meaning is a close examination of why some inmates were psychologically broken by the camps, while others were not. 

Frankl believed that some victims of the Nazis had survived by fixing their hopes on a beloved person, or on God. It was the thought of that figure which gave them the strength to carry on and avoid sinking into despair.

Pistorius quotes the pivotal moment of Frankl's own imprisonment, when as he suffered he thought of his wife - and understood that "the salvation of man is through love and in love".

The text continues: "I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved."

Reeva Steenkamp died on 14 February 2013 when Pistorius shot and killed her through a bathroom door. They had been dating for about three months.

The prosecution claims that he killed her intentionally, but he denies the charge. The trial is likely to conclude next month.


More about Oscar Pistorius:

Oscar Pistorius trial: what happens next Oscar Pistorius: some defence witnesses refused to testify Oscar Pistorius judge's concern over mysterious missing cordOscar Pistorius: seven key quotes from the murder trial Pistorius cannot dodge jail with murder acquittal alone Six questions for Judge Masipa Family denies athlete took acting lessons Reeva 'had no time to scream' Pistorius told: 'You are getting deeper into trouble' Pistorius describes night he shot Reeva Steenkamp Police release photos of crime scene Five questions Pistorius will need to answer Pistorius used bullets that cause 'maximum wounding'


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