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Public growing more skeptical as Pistorius testimony wraps up

Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius reacts during his trial at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria April 15, 2014.


Follow The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent, Geoffrey York, @geoffreyyork, as he live tweets from Oscar Pistorius's murder trial.

After seven days of gruelling testimony, Oscar Pistorius has finally escaped the agony of the witness box. But while the outcome of his murder trial is still unpredictable, he appears to be slipping closer to defeat in the court of public opinion.

Most South Africans – and global viewers – are increasingly skeptical of the Olympic celebrity's explanation of how he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. It was a defence that once seemed so simple. But under the pressure of cross-examination, it now seems less plausible than ever.

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The turning point came when Mr. Pistorius began to portray the shooting as "accidental" and involuntary.

He had been expected to tell his murder trial that he aimed to shoot the perceived intruder in self-defence, firing his 9mm pistol through the bathroom door in an effort to hit a potential attacker. This might have generated sympathy from some South Africans, since their country has one of the world's highest murder rates.

Instead, Mr. Pistorius surprised the trial by denying any intention to shoot the "intruder" behind the bathroom door. He admits he pulled the trigger, but denied it was deliberate. He has left the impression that he fired the gun four times without any awareness that he was doing so.

"Did you consciously pull the trigger or not?" defence lawyer Barry Roux asked him on Tuesday. The double-amputee athlete said it was not conscious. He said he was terrified and pulled the trigger without thinking at all.

This switch in explanation, increasingly evident over his seven days on the witness stand, has confused his legal case and baffled the huge audiences watching the sensational trial on television or on websites.

But it is entirely consistent with the response that Mr. Pistorius has adopted to every charge against him. His mantra seems to be: Deny, deny, deny.

In the most startling example, Mr. Pistorius insisted he did not pull the trigger of a Glock pistol at a busy Johannesburg restaurant in January, 2013, just a few weeks before the killing of his girlfriend, even though he admitted to holding the Glock when it went off, firing a bullet into the floor and slightly injuring one of his friends.

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Experts have testified that the Glock pistol cannot be fired unless its trigger is pulled. South Africans have ridiculed the Pistorius explanation of the restaurant shooting, calling it the "immaculate discharge." The prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, has sarcastically called it "a miracle."

Mr. Nel has pointed out a remarkable parallel between the restaurant incident and the shooting of Ms. Steenkamp. In both cases, Mr. Pistorius has insisted that the gun went off without any conscious effort on his part.

In legal terms, self-defence is a different argument – and much more supportable – than his new apparent claim of "involuntary" action. He cannot legally make both arguments. And the "involuntary action" argument is rarely accepted in South Africa, usually reserved for sleepwalking or epileptic seizures.

Mr. Nel argues that Mr. Pistorius has a consistent pattern of denying responsibility for any offence, even the most seemingly open-and-shut cases, such as the restaurant shooting or a separate incident in which two witnesses testified that he fired his pistol through the open sunroof of a car. He even blamed his own lawyer, Mr. Roux, for failing to tell him that it was illegal to store his father's .38-calibre ammunition in his home safe without a licence – another charge that he faces.

On Tuesday, near the end of his cross-examination, Mr. Nel asked Mr. Pistorius whom he blamed for the shooting of Ms. Steenkamp. "The government?" he suggested to Mr. Pistorius in an ironic tone.

For those who have watched Mr. Pistorius closely since the beginning of this trial last month, the Olympian seems self-righteous and arrogant, unable to conceive of any criminal wrongdoing, even on minor firearms charges or a lesser alternative to murder, such as culpable homicide. Perhaps he still hopes to return in the future to his lucrative athletic career without any criminal convictions hanging over him.

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South Africans increasingly find it difficult to believe that Mr. Pistorius fired four bullets at a person in a tiny toilet cubicle without any intention of killing. The cross-examination by Mr. Nel revealed a series of inconsistencies and contradictions that further damaged the defence case.

"You are the latest in a long line of faux heroes," South African journalist Jani Allan wrote in a scathing "letter to Oscar" that generated much attention on South African websites on Tuesday.

"You have betrayed your people and disappointed your fans," she wrote.

Judge Thokozile Masipa has ruled that proceedings will adjourn for more than two weeks after Thursday and resume on May 5.

Follow me on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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