Oscar Pistorius trial: The great Gerrie debate

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel. (Reuters)

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel. (Reuters)

In the legal fraternity Gerrie Nel has a fearsome reputation, which was cemented (though established) well before he shredded former police commissioner Jackie Selebi in the witness box. Some call him an artist of cross examination, capable of bringing together what seems like a bewildering mess of threads into a scalpel-sharp accusation. Others frown on his approach but find it difficult to argue with his results.

Nel is a storied prosecutor; he was accused of a murder conspiracy by former crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli and arrested by a veritable horde of police during the Selebi trial, and was all the more respected for his apparent imperviousness to such crude and desperate measures by those he has acted against.

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However, in the early stages of the Oscar Pistorius trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, Nel was the butt of jokes.
"He is a man never shy to go to tea early," said a foreign correspondent of Nel, apparently blind to the fact that Nel and his small team tackle a mountain of work whenever court is not in session. "Is he ever going to actually make a case or does he just like being in this room?" complained another court-room observer.

But on Wednesday, as Nel got his claws into Pistorius under cross-examination, there was first stunned silence, then fierce debate. Friends and supporters of Pistorius were outraged: Nel had gone too far, they said, using what amounts to psychological torture by confronting Pistorius with a crime-scene photograph of Steenkamp's gruesome wounds.

Those of a more no-smoke-without-fire disposition, expressed their joy: a dead woman deserves the most vigorous prosecution possible, they argued, and putting a murder accused through the wringer is not only justified but mandatory.

Merciless intensity
The argument raged throughout Wednesday afternoon and evening, after a day in which Nel pounded Pistorius with merciless intensity. "It will show that you are lying," he told Pistorius on the importance of a small point. "I understand I'll be taken apart," Pistorius told Nel later.

While the public debate revolved around fairness, advocates however were debating tactics: the nature of adversarial justice and the best methods to establish truth. And among the legal experts, opinion was equally divided.

How far do you push an accused before you lose the sympathy of a judge? Judges don't function on sympathy, one argument went, credibility is subjective and swayed by the approach of the questioner, went another.

Should a prosecutor keep in mind possible grounds for appeal? Win the case in front of you first, said one advocate; win the case in the long run, said another.

Which takes precedence: the dignity of the deceased or the importance of a thorough prosecution, which includes using a crime-scene photograph as a battering ram? Consensus swayed to the latter but with much muttering about the hypocrisy of helping a forensic pathologist argue the former first.

What the experts could agree on, though – even the more cynical and hard-bitten ones – was that they too were riveted by the Pistorius proceedings.

"Up to now I thought you guys were making a big deal out of nothing," said one. "Know what? I couldn't take my eyes off it."

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet

Phillip de Wet writes about politics, society, economics, and the areas where these collide. He has never been anything other than a journalist, though he has been involved in starting new newspapers, magazines and websites, a suspiciously large percentage of which are no longer in business. PGP fingerprint: CF74 7B0F F037 ACB9 779C 902B 793C 8781 4548 D165 Read more from Phillip de Wet

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