Oscar Pistorius 'trial of century' to start

03:48, Mar 02 2014
Oscar Pistorius
IN COURT: Oscar Pistorius enters the dock before in court proceedings at the Pretoria Magistrates court in June, last year.

It is being touted as the "trial of the century" – more dramatic than a Hollywood blockbuster, with a plot that defies reality.

But for Oscar Pistorius and the family of his late girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, it's about only one thing: justice.

On Monday, the double amputee once famous only for his athletic feats will run the gauntlet of an unprecedented international media contingent in front of the North Gauteng High Court.

Pistorius admits he shot 29-year-old Steenkamp dead that night, but claims he believed he was stopping an intruder in self-defence. Prosecutors allege he murdered his girlfriend in cold blood, after a heated argument.

The couple had met on the Johannesburg social scene in 2012. Her star was on the rise, with increasingly high profile modelling and television gigs. He was the handsome, dashing hero of the London Olympics, with multimillion-dollar sponsorship contracts and international fame.

Over the few short months of their courtship, theirs seemed a South African fairytale.

Journalists from around the globe have descended on Pretoria, with locals being urged to avoid the streets around the courthouse due to the dozens of television satellite trucks that are expected to cause traffic mayhem.

Last week, a judge ordered that parts of the trial be broadcast live, and the audio can also be heard live on South African radio. To a country that did not have television until 1975, it will be an extraordinary spectacle as every word is also transmitted to a polarised international audience.

When he enters the drab courtroom on Monday, Pistorius will face the fight of his life. If convicted, the sentence may be up to 25 years in jail, with any chance of a return to the hero status he once commanded extinguished.

He will also come face-to-face with the family of his late girlfriend for the first time since the fatal shooting.

Steenkamp's mother, June, will be supported in court by other family and friends, although her husband, Barry, who reportedly had a stroke in the past 12 months, will not attend.

In front of hundreds of reporters, the evidence from police, forensic experts, neighbours, family and friends of the couple will be closely examined, tested and judged.

The case will be spearheaded by Gerrie Nel, who has prosecuted some of South Africa's biggest cases over a 30-year career. As a former national prosecuting authority spokesman told the local media: “Everything he touches turns to gold.”

Key planks of the police case include testimony from neighbours who say they heard the couple arguing, while a security guard is also expected to give evidence that he rang Pistorius' home after hearing gunshots, only to be told by the athlete that everything was fine.

Just days out from the trial, prosecutors were even seeking the help of Apple to retrieve information from Pistorius' iPhone – he says he has forgotten the password.

For his part, Pistorius will leave most of the talking to his barrister, Barry Roux. The defence team is expected to call at least four forensic scientists and use evidence from a US forensic animation firm, which has digitally recreated the crime scene for the case.

A theatrical and charismatic defence lawyer, Roux last year managed to secure the athlete bail. Ensuring his infamous client is acquitted is his next challenge.

In an acknowledgment that the battles will not only be fought in the courtroom, Team Pistorius has set up a Twitter account, @OscarHardTruth. Its descriptor reads: “Truth shall prevail. Innocent until proven guilty.”

By Saturday the account had almost 27,000 followers.

Watching the two sides trade blows in court will be Judge Thokozile Masipa, a former crime reporter who became only the second black woman appointed to the High Court. She completed her law degree at the age of 43. Previously a social worker, she has expressed strong views about violence against women in her cases, handing maximum sentences to those she convicts.

On the eve of the trial, the athlete's uncle Arnold Pistorius released a statement reaffirming the family's support of his nephew's innocence.

"The time for public commentary is over. The focus is now entirely on a very serious trial that is set to start on Monday."

Lisa Davies will be reporting live from the High Court in Pretoria.


Fairfax Media