PRETORIA, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius, on trial for his girlfriend’s murder, has spent a rocky four days on the witness stand under cross examination by lead prosecutor Gerrie “the Pit Bull" Nel.
Pistorius, for those not following the trial as obsessively as many of us here in South Africa, is the Paralympic gold medal-winning sprinter who runs on twin carbon-fiber blades. At the 2012 London Games he became the first disabled person to compete in an Olympic event against able-bodied runners.
Pistorius admits to shooting dead Reeva Steenkamp, his law-graduate-turned-model girlfriend, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day last year, but says it was an accident.
Pistorius’s version of events are as follows: He awoke in the early hours of Feb. 14 and went to fetch two floor fans from the balcony to cool down the bedroom. As he turned away from the fans, he saw an annoying LED light and went to cover it with a pair of jeans.
While he was up, he says, Steenkamp went to use the bathroom without his noticing, and when he heard noises he thought it was an intruder. Only after firing four shots into the toilet cubicle door did he realize Steenkamp was not in bed, there was no intruder, and he had shot his girlfriend. Pistorius and his legal team have said that physical details that fail to match Pistorius's account — such as crime scene photos showing the fans blocking Pistorius's access to the balcony from which he said he screamed — are the result of police tampering.
Pistorius first took the stand last Monday to present this account, guided by questions from his lawyer. Nel, who calls the story “so improbable that it cannot possibly be true,” began cross examining Thursday.
Nel has focused in part on the small differences between Pistorius’s story on the witness stand and his versions of what happened Feb. 14, 2013 as laid out in two affidavits shortly after Steenkamp’s death. Nel has also highlighted aspects of Pistorius’s story that Nel argues don’t match the physical evidence collected by police investigators.
We don’t know how long Nel will keep cross examining Pistorius. In a previous high-profile corruption trial, Nel kept a national police commissioner on the stand for nearly two weeks (and won the case).
Here are the main inconsistencies highlighted by Nel so far, with more likely to come:
1. Jeans on the floor
Crime scene photos show a pair of Steenkamp’s blue jeans on Pistorius’s bedroom floor, next to a duvet. Pistorius said he intended to place the jeans over a blue LED light on the stereo amplifier because the glow was bothering him, but he was distracted by a noise in the bathroom.
Nel argued that Steenkamp, who was a neat and tidy person, hadn’t just strewn her jeans on the floor. She was, Nel alleged, putting on her jeans to flee the house because of an argument with Pistorius.
Pistorius has denied the couple had a fight, and noted that the jeans were inside out, indicating they had been taken off.
Nel also pointed out the many other LED lights in the bedroom — for example, a red light on the television set — and wondered why none of these lights had bothered Pistorius. He said the blue light detail had been “invented” by Pistorius to create time in his story.
“You have to build in, on your version, a time gap for Reeva to get to the bathroom,” Nel said. “That's why you invented what you’re doing now.”
2. Steenkamp’s last meal
Autopsy results showed that Steenkamp still had undigested food in her stomach, meaning she had probably eaten between two and six hours before her death. However, Pistorius said that she last ate when they had dinner together at 7 p.m., which would have been around eight hours before she died.
Nel argued that Steenkamp actually ate at around 1 a.m. because the couple was up late having a fight, a claim Pistorius denies.
3. Fan on the balcony
In a statement last year, Pistorius said he was on the balcony off his bedroom retrieving floor fans when he heard a noise in the bathroom that he thought was an intruder.
Nel repeated this story in court, but Pistorius now says his original account wasn’t accurate — rather, he had gone to get the fans but they were only partly on the balcony, so he didn’t need to go fully outside.
This matters in part because Pistorius has accused police of moving the fans and other objects in the room, thereby tampering with the evidence. Police photos show one of the fans in front of the balcony door, meaning it would have blocked Pistorius’s route to the balcony where he claims he later called for help after realizing he had shot Steenkamp.
Nel is using this inconsistency to prove that Pistorius is tweaking his evidence to better fit his version of what happened the night he killed Steenkamp.
4. Door slamming
In his evidence in the witness box last week, Pistorius said he heard a door slamming when he was in the hallway between the master bedroom and bathroom, gun cocked. This confirmed to him that an intruder was hiding in the toilet cubicle.
Pistorius didn’t mention this detail when he was originally being questioned over the killing. Nel has asked why Pistorius is only bringing it up now.
"It's such a significant detail,” Nel said. “It’s even more devastating that it was not in your plea explanation.” Perhaps it was not included, Nel continued, because “you invented it.”
Pistorius insisted that he did mention the door slamming, and told Nel to “check the record” of his testimony.
When Pistorius was first called to the witness stand by his own lawyer last week, he said that after first hearing a noise in the bathroom he had whispered to Steenkamp to get down and call the police. Later on the stand he said he didn’t whisper but spoke in a “low tone.” Nel asked Pistorius why he had changed this detail.
Pistorius says this was a mistake and denied “tailoring evidence.”
6. “Wood” noise
Pistorius says he fired four shots through the closed toilet cubicle door, inside the bathroom, after hearing a “wood” sound that he thought was the door about to open and an intruder about to come out and attack him.
He says that in retrospect, the noise was probably the wooden magazine rack inside the toilet cubicle being moved by Steenkamp.
Nel challenged Pistorius on this point, arguing that he had heard Steenkamp fall against the magazine rack, after the first bullet hit her, and re-directed his aim toward her based on that sound.
On Tuesday, Nel doubled down on this point, reading from the bail application where Pistorius stated he had "heard movement" from the toilet cubicle. Saying one "heard movement," Nel argued, was different from saying one had heard a "wood" sound. "Why use the term movement instead of noise?" Nel asked. Pistorius responded that he had interpreted the movement as a noise.
Pistorius, looking at crime scene photos, also told the court that the wooden magazine rack had not previously been in the position seen in the photo. In other words, police had moved objects in the crime scene. Nel challenged Pistorius on this point, saying that the magazine rack had never moved and to prove it showing the court a photo of the toilet cubicle with one of its wooden legs in a pool of blood.
"It never moved into the blood," Nel said, zooming in to show the absence of smear marks on the floor. "It looks like it was picked up and placed there," Pistorius responded.
7. The duvet
Pistorius has said that the duvet was on the bed, and that police photographs showing it on the floor suggest police had moved it there after the shooting. This is part of the defense’s argument that police tampered with the crime scene.
Nel has argued that a pattern of blood spatters on the duvet and carpet show that it had been on the floor before the police arrived. The blood spots indicate it was there when Pistorius carried Steenkamp’s body from the bathroom to downstairs. Moreover, its location on the floor is evidence that Pistorius and Steenkamp had been having an argument, Nel said.
Pistorius has maintained that he does not remember the duvet being on the floor.
Editor's note: This post, originally published Monday, April 14, has been updated in the interest of comprehensiveness to include details from Tuesday's cross-examination.