Oscar Pistorius: When accused go bad

As Oscar Pistorius left the witness box this week, criminal defence advocates were not critical of his lawyer, Barry Roux. (Reuters)

As Oscar Pistorius left the witness box this week, criminal defence advocates were not critical of his lawyer, Barry Roux. (Reuters)

Advocates say little can be done when clients are determined to do themselves in. On the scale of accused gone bad, Oscar Pistorius barely registers.

Surgeons judge one another on the number of successful operations and lives saved, engineers count the bridges that did not fall down and roads that did not flood during the first rainy season. Dentists are not easily forgiven for botched root canals, and lawyers are expected to draft loophole-free contracts.

Professionals – especially highly qualified and richly paid ones – are expected to succeed.

Priests, pastor, rabbis and imams, on the other hand, are forgiving of themselves and one another when it comes to the numbers. You can only lead a soiled soul to water, you can't make it wash.

Some advocates in criminal law are of a similar it's-the-game-not-the-result disposition; you can only work with the material you are handed, after all. And if the material includes an accused determined to make a hash of things, then there are still points to be awarded for style.

So as Oscar Pistorius left the witness box this week, with his direct participation in his trial for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, criminal defence advocates were not critical of Barry Roux, his approach in the matter, or what they considered his shrinking odds of ultimate success.

Swapping war stories
Instead, they were swapping stories of accused who had let them down, partially to illustrate the point that not every case is won or lost by the advocate, and partially because the profession tends to attract people who like to talk, and are technically barred from sharing such stories.

There was once a rape accused who pleaded not guilty, but volunteered extensive thoughts on how to best subdue an unco-operative woman. There was a fraudster who, on being queried about his third change of counsel, told the court he did not like his chances with a legal team unwilling to lie on his behalf. Then there was a man caught in possession of an illicit substance who decided he would fare better under cross-examination if he partook in said substance before entering the witness box.

The list of trespasses against (what those in charge insist were otherwise winnable) cases are extraordinary. By comparison, at least, Pistorius committed minor sins, albeit a large number of them during his testimony: arguing rather than answering questions, answering questions at length rather than simply, introducing discrepancies into his own evidence, nitpicking, blaming his legal team when pressed, refusing to make obvious concessions, and doing his own credibility few favours with his demeanour, which alternated between plaintive and petulant but seemed constantly in contrast to his own description of his actions.

Pistorius, the advocates said, was not an ideal accused to work with, but nor was he awful enough to make for a story that would be still be retold decades from now. And they, at least, would be commiserating with – rather than blaming – Roux should the judgment not go his way.

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