PRETORIA: Oscar Pistorius did himself more harm than good when he took the witness stand, say South African lawyers.
Throughout five gruelling days on the witness stand, the Paralympic gold medallist contradicted himself, a nail in the coffin for his defence, said lawyers watching the case.
Initially, Pistorius had said he believed he was under attack by an intruder when he fired four shots at the toilet door. That strategy sought protection for the use of deadly force under the principle of self-defence.
But in his cross-examination, the 27-year-old athlete changed his testimony to say he fired the shots at the door accidentally. An accident is an entirely different defence, suggesting involuntariness.
Pistorius has also suggested he was not thinking rationally when he fired his 9mm pistol at a toilet door behind which was his girlfriend, 29-year-old model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp. He said he “didn’t have time to think”.
His testimony went downhill the moment he took the stand, said Martin Hood, a Johannesburg-based criminal lawyer.
“He went into a dangerous situation with his firearm, safety disengaged, and he proceeded down the passage in what he described as a tactical manner,” said Hood. “So all of his decisions were conscious, intentional decisions.”
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to intentionally killing Steenkamp, as well as to three other charges related to the reckless discharge of a firearm in a separate incident and the unlawful possession of ammunition.
Hood says it did not reflect well on Pistorius that he did not accept responsibility for firing a gunshot in an upmarket Johannesburg restaurant.
“The fact that he refused to accept responsibility for the gun discharging in Tasha’s, though he had it in his possession and in his control,” said Hood, “that’s a watershed in the case.”
State prosecutor Gerrie Nel — nicknamed “the bulldog” for his tenacious courtroom performances — has picked at inconsistencies between Pistorius’s evidence in court and his lengthy bail application.
“You are thinking of a version constantly and not dealing with the question,” Nel accused Pistorius. “It’s getting more and more improbable and you’re tailoring more and more as we go on.”
‘A desperate man’
Pistorius blamed his legal team for inconsistencies between his accounts and claimed police moved key pieces of evidence that appeared to incriminate him, a sign, observers said, that he had abandoned his legal team’s strategy.
“He suddenly went on his own, he now got angry with Nel and he now is going to take him on,” said William Booth, a criminal lawyer. “I think it’s a desperate man.”
The star sprinter made textbook mistakes in the witness stand, said Booth, saying Pistorius was evasive, did not answer questions, and was argumentative.
“His lawyer tried in reexamination very briefly to resurrect things, but I think he was probably sensible to leave alone,” said Booth, speaking from Cape Town.
“The more questions you ask somebody like Oscar, it could actually get worse,” he said.
“I think in retrospect they’re probably regretting calling him as a witness,” said Booth, “but the point is that he had to testify in his defence — he was the only witness to the incident.”