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Oscar Pistorius trial: Let the hysteria begin

Phillip De Wet

The Blade Runner's legal team will fight for his freedom with the global media recording every nuance of one of the most hyped legal events ever.

Oscar Pistorius in court on June 4 2013. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

On the morning of March 3, the Oscar Pistorius circus will officially open. A packed Pretoria court will be called to rise for judge Thokozile Masipa and the most mediagenic trial in South African history – one that could come to be among the most-watched legal events in the world – will begin.

Pistorius, the Olympic athlete known as the Blade Runner, will stand in the dock alone but insulated from proceedings by a high-powered legal team, backed by experts who have long prepared for the case.

Pistorius supporters will be given 10 assigned seats and the large group of friends and family is likely to rotate through the trial.

They will be vastly outnumbered by what could be uncharitably interpreted as a seething hive of journalists – 80 members of the media in the court itself, in highly sought-after seats assigned to media houses following much horse-trading, with many more scattered throughout the court building and its surrounds.

Depending on the outcome of at least two concerted, pending efforts, the courtroom may feature television cameras, or at least microphones, for at least part of proceedings.

Minimal PR
​During bail proceedings in 2013, the Pistorius family hired notorious British tabloid editor turned spin doctor Stuart Higgins, and brought in a local communications company that assigned a team of four, plus support staff, to stand in the path of the media avalanche.

The case itself will see nothing on the same scale.

"There is no [public relations] machinery," Pistorius's uncle, Arnold Pistorius, guardedly told the Mail & Guardian through an intermediary this week.

Anneliese Burgess, a former journalist, will handle media inquiries for the family, but her job will primarily be to turn down requests.

"As a family, we will communicate when we think it is necessary but we want the legal process to be allowed to take its due course," said Arnold.

Inside the court itself officials, not least of all Masipa, should be able to maintain control of the crowd. Security plans, crafted in the memory of the chaos that periodically reigned during Pistorius's bail appearances, call for tight access management and enough manpower to eject anyone considered disruptive quickly.

Outside the building it will be harder to maintain order.

Human crush
Police will have to contend with satellite broadcast vans and live camera positions that will inevitably obstruct streets and pavements, and throngs of well-wishers and demonstrators attracted by either the event or the unusual concentration of world media.

Several groups are discussing small protests around issues such as femicide.

Police will find themselves confronted by groups of photographers eager to catch Pistorius in an unguarded facial expression through a window as he enters and leaves – and the near-certain prospect of paparazzi on the back of motorcycles chasing after the vehicles of Pistorius and his family as they make their way from the suburb of Waterkloof to the court building near the centre of the city.


The murder of Reeva Steenkamp reverberated across the world when Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius admitted to shooting her. (Felix Karlsson)

The court proceedings will, by contrast, be as formal and structured – and occasionally dreadfully dreary – as only a murder trial can be.

The two legal teams are keeping their strategies and tactics to themselves, and are not expected to engage with the intense public interest around the trial.

No surprises
"We don't want to create the impression that something untoward will be happening, that we will be surprising people with evidence," said National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Nathi Mncube.

"The strategy only comes into how you call witnesses – what sequence – and we would not want to divulge that. That's how the system works."

"The family does not want to comment on any aspect of the court case itself ... such as potential expert witnesses," said Burgess.

But between the details that emerged during Pistorius's application for bail, what is known about police investigations and the witness list, the broad outlines are clear.

Though the state may still be forced to prove every assertion, the most important facts are not in dispute: Pistorius has admitted to fatally shooting Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours before Valentine's Day last year.

There is no argument that Pistorius caused the death of Steenkamp, that the relationship between them was a romantic one, that they were alone at the time, and none of the detail that usually snarls up other murder cases.

Circumstances and intent
The only real question before the court will be the circumstances immediately before Pistorius pulled the trigger, and his intent when he did so. Therein could lie the difference between a lengthy prison term for murder and a suspended sentence – effective freedom – for the Blade Runner.

Determining the truth or otherwise of Pistorius's contention that he did not know he was shooting at Steenkamp but thought he was defending both her and himself from an intruder is scheduled to take up three weeks of court time, and will come down to historical context and technical detail.


Oscar Pistorius made the headlines when he shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. (Felix Karlsson)

Prosecutors will attempt to make the case that Pistorius has a cavalier attitude towards guns by citing two instances in which he allegedly recklessly fired weapons in public: one while sitting in a restaurant, the other through the sunroof of a car.

"You can't say exactly what he was thinking [during the shooting of Steenkamp], but you can say ‘here is a guy who is reckless with guns; what does that tell us about his attitude in general, and what he was thinking that night?'" said an advocate familiar with murder cases but not involved in the Pistorius matter.

"You build a pattern and let the pattern inform the court."

Forensic defence
The defence focus, on the other hand, is likely to be the forensic evidence left behind at the house in the Silver Woods estate where the shooting took place – and on discrediting parts of it.

The defence will hope that the analysis of bullet trajectories will conclusively show that Pistorius was not wearing his prostheses at the time he shot Steenkamp, bolstering his explanation that he was feeling vulnerable to a presumed burglar.

Pistorius's team seems likely to argue that evidence at the scene was contaminated by police bumbling, making it more difficult to contradict his version of events.

On the road between these two primary arguments, though, will be a great deal of examination of details and, possibly, disputes about witness testimony.

This is expected to include whether Pistorius and Steenkamp were arguing on the night of the shooting, if the lights in Pistorius's home were on or off at the time, how many shots were fired and over what period of time.


Valentine's Day: Media on parade

Oscar Pistorius will stand in the dock only on March 3, and pervasive publicity of his murder trial is scheduled for the weekend before that. But on Friday February 14, the anniversary of the death of Reeva Steenkamp, the world will get a preview of what is to come ­during the trial.

Media organisations as far afield as Russia and Argentina have already prepared material to be ready on the day, and though many are reluctant to disclose details of their preparations for fear of losing a competitive advantage, there is every indication that the offerings will be slick and well produced.

Among the material readied for Valentine's Day and the trial are many hours of taped interviews and three-dimensional models of the house where the shooting took place.

Although she was well known in her own right, early indications are that Steenkamp will figure far less prominently than Pistorius.

Some media groups have secured the services of ballistic experts, psychologists and investigators to serve as commentators during slots when court evidence will be mulled over for popular consumption. Others have scoured archives and collections for images of Pistorius and Steenkamp.

Yet others have tried to contact Judge Thokozile Masipa, who will be presiding over the trial, much to the disgust of the department of justice, which has privately warned off journalists.

Publicly, it is somewhat more reserved. "As a general matter of principle, judges do not grant interviews on matters that they are presiding over for the preservation of the integrity of the process of adjudication and for fairness and impartiality to any litigation process," said Lulama Luti, the spokesperson for the chief justice.


The judge: a reserved sort of competence

For 15 years, Thokozile Masipa has been a largely unnoticed member of the judiciary.

Besides the occasional footnote on the medium-profile cases she has presided over, she has not come to the attention of the public.

By the end of March, Masipa could well be South Africa's most famous living jurist.

The amount of video or sound recording that will be allowed during the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius is yet to be determined, but even in the absence of recordings Masipa's every nuance will be closely watched, and her verdict anticipated from every decision she makes, no matter how small.

Those in the legal fraternity familiar with her and her work say Masipa will be up to the challenge, although she will not necessarily enjoy the scrutiny.

"Some judges like to get up there and perform with everyone watching," said one officer of the court.

"Some think it's a good thing that justice is seen to be done; they handle it. [Masipa] is a bit shy, a bit reserved. I don't think she'll like the spotlight, but she'll be okay."

Several people described Masipa using the same family of adjectives: pleasant, likeable, good-natured. And the only concerns about her presiding over the Pistorius case came from those very attributes.

"There is going to be very bossy counsel in there, getting aggressive," said a legal professional who has had limited professional exposure to Masipa. "If I had to worry about anything, that is the thing."

Masipa has had a somewhat unusual career path. She only completed her law degree at the age of 43, having first qualified and worked as a social worker, then as a crime reporter. She became the second black woman on the Transvaal Bench in 1998 and she has presided over a large number of criminal cases without controversy.

Those familiar with her judgments said her work was eloquent and considered, and that her rulings were respected among her peers. This is high praise considering that it comes from a group careful about commenting on one another in public, but who are occasionally very harsh on one another behind closed doors.

"When they announced it was her on the Pistorius case, the reaction [from judges] was not 'oh no, not her'," said an officer of the court.


Blade Runner certain to break new records

The verdict on the videotaped beating of Rodney King by police set Los Angeles aflame. The trial of Saddam Hussein was watched, as closely as access allowed, around the world. Nearly seven decades later, the Nuremberg Trials are still being analysed.

But the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius could come to top them all by several metrics. None of those trials had a dedicated television channel, after all.

The Oscar Pistorius Trial: A Carte Blanche Channel, will be launched on February 14 and is scheduled to go live on March 2. During the trial the DSTV channel will carry nothing but material on and relating to the trial, 24 hours a day.

The channel will have stiff competition. Thanks to Pistorius's unlikely appearance at the Olympic Games, the matter will be intensely watched in many European countries, with less – but still significant – interest expected from audiences in the United States and Asia. That global reach, though dependent on how well the proceedings translate to television, could see the total Pistorius audience outnumber that of recent, more regional contenders for the title "trial of the century".

The final viewership tally will be boosted significantly by the social media spread of the trial, and associated online viewership. At the beginning of February the 10 most-watched YouTube videos on the case (rather than earlier interviews with Pistorius about his performances) had racked up a combined count of 950 000 views. A single video tribute to Reeva Steenkamp garnered about 820 000 views.


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