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Defense gets its turn in Pistorius murder trial



PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- For five days, Oscar Pistorius endured a withering cross-examination at his murder trial from a prosecutor who pounced on apparent inconsistencies in his testimony. Yet, legal analysts said Tuesday, expert witnesses who will testify for the defense could undermine the prosecution's efforts to prove Pistorius killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on purpose after an argument.

The demeanor of the Olympian, often fumbling for answers and occasionally breaking into sobs, contrasted with that of prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who called Pistorius a liar and unleashed volleys of barbed questions. Social media buzzed that Pistorius is in deep trouble - a South African talk show host wryly observed that the double-amputee runner had not "covered himself with glory" when his cross-examination ended Tuesday - but experts said the trial has a long way to go.

"Until the defense presents the rest of their case, you can't really evaluate the significance of any potential concessions that he may have made," said Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer in the public law department at the University of Cape Town.

The trial, which began March 3 and is expected to hear testimony until mid-May, reached a key stage last week when Pistorius took the stand to testify about the circumstances of Steenkamp's killing in his home before dawn on Feb. 14, 2013. The Paralympic champion, 27, says he shot the 29-year-old model through a closed toilet door after mistaking her for an intruder, but Nel catalogued what he said were conflicts in Pistorius' story that prove he made it up.

The prosecution provided a "very clear narrative for the first time" of what it says happened on the night of Steenkamp's death, Phelps said. The judge, she said, must decide whether Pistorius' inconsistencies were a result of his clumsily trying to polish a story that is true in its fundamentals, or instead revealed an "elaborate cover-up plot" after he murdered his lover.

Phelps said the prosecution accused Pistorius of changing his account mostly on "smaller details" but that he had stuck to the "core parts of his story."

Some commentators have speculated that Pistorius could face a lesser homicide charge that still carries long prison time in the event of a conviction.

Still, during cross-examination, Pistorius gave a sometimes muddled account of the shooting. He said he feared for his life but also didn't intentionally shoot at anyone, prompting Nel to query if his defense was self-defense or "involuntary action."

Inconsistencies in the athlete's testimony include his statement that Steenkamp did not scream when he shot her but later saying his ears were ringing with the first of four gunshots and he would not have heard screams. A vital part of the prosecution's case is the testimony of neighbors who said they heard a woman's terrified screams on the night that Steenkamp died; the defense says they actually heard Pistorius screaming in a high-pitched voice.

Pistorius' credibility was further challenged by earlier testimony against him for three unrelated gun charges in which he denied any wrongdoing when questioned by Nel. Possibly in his favor was his lack of anger on the witness stand despite the prosecution's picture of him as overbearing and arrogant.

Nevertheless, Marius du Toit, a former state prosecutor, magistrate and now criminal defense lawyer in South Africa, said Nel exceeded his goals in his cross-examination, even goading Pistorius into faulting his legal team while trying to clarify testimony. For example, chief defense lawyer Barry Roux said Pistorius fired two quick bursts - the gun owner's terminology for such a burst is "double tap" - but Pistorius said he fired four shots in rapid succession.

Du Toit, however, said the defense, which plans to call up to 17 witnesses, could still make it hard for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pistorius is guilty of premeditated murder, which carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison. Du Toit said he wasn't convinced that the prosecution had shown that he intended to kill, noting Pistorius fired roughly level with Steenkamp's mid-section. Prosecution witnesses said the first bullet likely struck her in the hip.

"If you wanted to kill someone, you would shoot in the chest or the head," du Toit said, adding that it was "not all lost" for Pistorius even though the defense has a lot of hard work to do.

That work started right after Pistorius finished testifying. Roux, the defense lawyer, had the runner read out a Valentine's Day card from Steenkamp that she allegedly brought him just before he killed her. In it, she tells Pistorius that she loves him.

Roux then called forensic expert and former police officer Roger Dixon, who contradicted parts of the prosecution's case. Dixon said he conducted tests in Pistorius' bedroom that proved it was very dark there at night, supporting Pistorius' statement that he could not see Steenkamp in his bedroom on the night he killed her, and describing some aspects of the police investigation as "unprofessional."

Phelps, the University of Cape Town lecturer, said Judge Thokozile Masipa could consider the prosecutor's allegation that Pistorius sometimes faked distress in the witness box to wriggle out of a tough question. Otherwise, she said, the athlete's outbursts would not affect the judge, who will deliver a verdict because South Africa does not have a jury system.

"Her recognizing that trauma will have absolutely no bearing on her determination as to what his state of mind was when he was firing the shots," Phelps said.

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You've got IT! April 15 2014 at 6:11 PM

If I thought someone was in the bathroom that might hurt me and my spouse, I would at the very least, reach over to my spouse and whisper some direction to make sure we are on the same page. It is what any sane, normal person would do. Have they not explored this?! Who shoots at someone behind a door, not knowing exactly where their partner is? It's absurd beyond measure.

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2 replies
oldfarrk You've got IT! April 15 2014 at 7:00 PM

I admit I don;t get why this isn't the main push for the prosecutor . Who shoots into a bathroom without checking to see if their loved one is in the bathroom ?

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xpphil12 You've got IT! April 15 2014 at 8:39 PM

You are correct.What if it was an overnight guest in a guest bedroom that might be using the bathroom? Even if I was alone in the house and heard someone in my bathroom I would not fire multiple shots through a closed bathroom door.What if the person in the bathroom was unarmed or maybe I had forgot to lock the front door and a drunk kid wandered in thinking the house was unoccupied.I would not want to have to explain my killing an unarmed person.

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jo mama April 15 2014 at 9:12 PM

Not saying i could send someone to jail for life over "opinion" but there isn't one molecule in my body that thinks he really shot at an intruder. I sense self entitled, raged with rejection and an in the moment plot sounds good so fire.

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1 reply
mensdiamonds jo mama April 15 2014 at 10:30 PM

Hey jo mama, YO MAMA. There's not a molecule in your body that thinks because it simply doesn't know the full facts before you open that big mouth. Don't you know we were born with two good ears and one big mouth? Its because we were born with two good ears to listen well BEFORE we open our BIG MOUTH.
WTF you get off not knowing and then saying " he is going to jail" . That's why I hate old hoodrats having babies and not raising them to go to SCHOOL and learn get an education. I bet you didn't make it to high school coming from a hood rat. YO MAMA

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jthimm April 15 2014 at 7:27 PM

What a waste of journalism on this man.

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KUMAHLE April 15 2014 at 8:50 PM

Pistorius is innocent though he shot and killed his girl friend mistaken for an intruder. He is already a double amputtee and the only thing left in his life to secure is his life.

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2 replies
oceansunset76242 KUMAHLE April 15 2014 at 9:18 PM

BEING A DOUBLE AMPUTTEE HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS CASE.

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1 reply
wingste8 oceansunset76242 April 15 2014 at 9:48 PM

It kind of does as they are measuring the holes in the door to the height that it would have been on his stumps.....

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jeanmarie KUMAHLE April 15 2014 at 9:20 PM

you are crazy. were you on oj's jury?

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fairfaxeagle April 15 2014 at 8:13 PM

about amputees and protection.
in 1985, I bought the house I live in ever since ,and met a very nice couple across the street from me
The gentleman was an ex marine ,suffering ,paralyzed from his waist down..always in a wheel chair with a blanket around him..spoke to him 100's of times and always saw him that way.
One evening ,his wife was out somewhere and his screen door was left open ..I decided to knock on his door..heard his frail voice " who is this...I told him it was me, he say to open the unlock door...and for a split second, his face changed ..could understand why...finally he tod me ..O gee I was about to shoot you I thought you were an intruder ..and then calmly put his gun on a nearby table.
I never ever realized to what extend handicapped people can be vulnerable and to what extend they can have that feeling of security by having that fire arm ..Oh and by the way, I am totally afraid of fire arms but in the world we live in , we NEVER KNOW what can happen...and especially to those disable people while in total vulnerability,even in their own home.
I don t know the details about Oscar Pisturius accident case , but there is a GREAT POSSIBILITY that the guy had a second of panic and perhaps he fired his weapon in that state of mind... He fired 4 shots ..YES HE DID ..but again, someone in the state of vulnerability and with the notion of the incapacity during a potention and imminent danger could act NOT the same way like a person in good physical and mental health,should be taken in consideration...what a tragedy for the parents of the victims, the victim and him as well..there are no winners here.
If there was a jury and I was the defense lawyer, I would make damn sure that I would have in the jury at least one handicaped person as well.

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1 reply
oceansunset76242 fairfaxeagle April 15 2014 at 9:29 PM

AS FOR HIM HAVING A GUN. IF YOU DO NOT KNOW HOW TO USE A GUN YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE ONE. I WILL SAY THIS AGAIN. HE SHOULD HAVE WOKE UP HIS GIRL FRIEND AND SAID I THINK SOMEONE IS IN THE HOUSE. HIDE UNDER THE BED AND DO NOT SAY A WORD. HELLO THAT IS WHAT I WOULD DO. SOMETHING IS JUST NOT RIGHT. I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THE STORY FROM THE START. AGAIN HOW FAR IS THE BEDROOM FROM THE BATHROOM. HOW BIG IS THE BED. SOMETHING IS JUST NOT RIGHT HERE. I WOULD NEVER FIRE A GUN NOT KNOWING WHO IS ON THE OTHER SIDE OF A BATHROOM DOOR. WHY NOT FIRE UP IN THE AIR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. HELLO THINK ABOUT IT.

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1 reply
bmicha_2 oceansunset76242 April 15 2014 at 10:03 PM

Is yelling the only way that know how to post a comment?Personally I believe that you've got an XXLarge motor mouth.

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Vern & Kathleen April 15 2014 at 8:00 PM

Wonder what he got her for valentines? How come she gave him a card and he gave nothing? Maybe that is why she was leaving him? I think he is lying and a is just feeling bad for himself. When you get up at night, you usually notice when your partner is not in bed with you....and you see the bathroom door shut, you yell out..."you in there honey?".....and usually when you go to the bathroom, you don't lock the door!! She was trying to get away from him! Guilty!!

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3 replies
skippafreckle April 15 2014 at 6:33 PM

gatlaw, why didn't he stop shooting when the woman started to scream, Duh

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Smile Jayda April 15 2014 at 6:27 PM

Does anyone in a loving relationship "lock" the bathroom door at night - you usually run in and leave the door wide open - unless, of course, you are afraid of the person trying to get into the bathroom.....

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eddie April 15 2014 at 6:26 PM

any fool can see he premeditated this murder, he knew she was behind the door afraid of him locked herself inside not knowing this bastards going to shoot through the door
bastard is guilty murder one!

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1 reply
xpphil12 eddie April 15 2014 at 8:28 PM

We all have had overnight house guests and they have to get up during the night to go to the bathroom,or maybe the kitchen if they are hungry.We all know that. You would have to be crazy or homicidal to fire a gun through a closed bathroom door with a guest in the house.

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btheriotnl April 15 2014 at 5:52 PM

Hate to say it....but blade runner is toast...this fat lady has sung

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