Oscar Pistorus trial a 'whydunnit'

Oscar Pistorius at the end of his trial. Picture:  REUTERS

Oscar Pistorius at the end of his trial. Picture: REUTERS

COMMENT: Oscar Pistorius leaned back in his chair, and said nothing.

He was staring at something nobody else could see.

Seconds ticked by. The question from the prosecutor still hung in the air.

‘‘Are you sure? Are you sure, Mr Pistorius, that Reeva did not scream after the first shot? Are you, Mr Pistorius?”

The silence was deafening.

I have spent the past decade covering crime, and witnessed some incredibly suspenseful  moments in Australian court rooms. But the Pistorius case - the past week in particular - is without doubt the most gripping I’ve experienced.

June Steenkamp’s gaze was fixed on the man who killed her daughter. Pistorius’ sister Aimee looked helplessly at the big brother she could not protect now.

Journalists - dozens of us from all over the world - stopped furiously tapping keyboards and took in the broken athlete in the witness box.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Everyone in the room leaned every-so-slightly forward, eyes trained on the London Olympic hero, holding their breath.

Would this be the moment the Blade Runner surrendered? Had prosecutor Gerrie Nel got his man?

Eventually, tearfully, Pistorius found his voice: “At no point did Reeva shout out or scream. I wish she let me know she was there, she did not do that.”

The barrage of questioning resumed, so too did the typing. The court exhaled. One reporter later remarked: “He was reliving it. He was remembering what happened. I thought he was going to confess.” She wasn’t alone.

Nobody could deny Pistorius is extremely distraught at the death of his girlfriend - but many column inches and late nights at media hotels here in South Africa have been dedicated to the source of the emotion: pure grief, or guilt too?

The 15 minutes before the trial adjourned on Friday may well have been the toughest Pistorius has faced since he shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day last year.

The prosecutor relentlessly chipped away at the athlete’s “improbable” version of events – that he shot and killed Ms Steenkamp in the mistaken belief she was an intruder – and in doing so painted a very compelling picture of what took place in that bathroom.

Mr Nel’s definitive case, which has remained poorly defined for the five weeks of the trial, was finally laid bare: the bubbly model was standing just three metres from her boyfriend, arguing and talking, when he opened fire in rage. They were separated only by the locked door of the toilet cubicle.

There is, the prosecutor said, no other version that “makes sense”.

“She was talking to you – she was standing right in front of the bathroom door talking to you when you shot her … She wasn’t scared of any intruder, she was scared of you,” Mr Nel thundered.

“It’s not true, my lady,” Pistorius responded in a small voice.

The sobbing, remorseful Olympian who had begun his testimony five days earlier was a distant memory - the prosecutor’s incandescent cross-examination had worked.

His intention from the outset was to strip away any lingering impression Pistorius might have created that he was a victim in all this, too.

He did so by showing the entire court (and an international television audience) Ms Steenkamp’s bloodied skull and gaping head wound, taunting Pistorius to look at what he had done and accept responsibility for it.

He wouldn’t, burying his head in his hands and screaming: “I won’t! I was there!”

As she does in every break in proceedings, Aimee Pistorius rushed to her brother’s side in the witness box a short time later, enveloping him in her arms as she tried to console his violent distress.

His family’s support has been unwavering. They overtly show their love for Pistorius, presenting an emotional and united front - with just the barest hint of indignation.

Polite and dignified, they greet reporters as they file into court, and discuss things “off the record” with a chosen few. Friends close, enemies closer.

They looked almost as shattered as the Paralympic track star when they filed out on Friday, Nel seeking an early adjournment to sharpen his claws once more.

But while Nel’s tenacious and meticulous cross-examination has all but demolished Pistorius’ version of what happened 14 months ago, does that prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt?

The evidence as it falls seems to supports the state’s circumstantial case theory, made all the more forceful by about what common sense would indicate is most “probable” and “reasonable”. But missing is concrete evidence of a motive.

As the BBC’s Andrew Harding put it so perfectly on Friday, this is not so much “a who-dunnit, but a why-dunnit”.

Mr Nel claims there was an argument, but we don’t know about what – or why.

The couple had argued at least twice in the lead-up to her death, and she told him in text messages she was scared of his moody outbursts, felt unloved and discarded.

Could this unhappiness in the relationship – was she going to leave him? – really have led to a murderous crescendo?

The defence has been at pains to counter the belief their relationship was on the rocks, showing in agonising detail hundreds of soppy text messages the pair also shared.

The athlete’s defence team will call at least a dozen more witnesses, challenging neighbours' claims of hearing a female screaming, and maybe even friends who can dismiss claims of trouble in paradise.

There is still a long way to go in this trial, and if the first five weeks were any indication there will be more tears, drama and intrigue.

Pistorius is now approaching the biggest finishing line of his life. But he may soon start to feel it more closely resembles a cliff edge on the horizon.

Lisa Davies is the Herald’s deputy news director.