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Pistorius Trial: Will Judge Buy His 'Tragic Accident' Defense?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'll hear about the Wimbledon Championships in just a few minutes but first a very different story that touches on the world of sport. It's a story that's been dominating the news in South Africa - the trial of former track star Oscar Pistorius. Court watchers say that the trial may be coming to a close. You probably remember that he's the former Olympian who shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine's Day in 2013. He says it was a tragic accident, that he thought she was an intruder but prosecutors say it was murder. We wanted to get the latest on the trial so we've called, once again, on Barry Bateman. He's a senior reporter for Eyewitness News in South Africa and he's been following the case closely. Barry Bateman, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

BARRY BATEMAN: Oh, my pleasure, hello.

MARTIN: Can you remind us about why there was this long break in the trial so that he could undergo psychological evaluation. I think it's confusing to Americans 'cause I think a lot of us would've assumed that this kind of psychological evaluation would've occurred before the trial commenced. Can you just tell us a little bit about that and if we know what the evaluation found?

BATEMAN: Sure. Usually when it comes to the law it's the onus upon the defense team to offer a psychiatric reason for the trial not going ahead or, you know, to challenge the culpability in terms of criminality. It was never the contention from the events that Oscar Pistorius is not mentally liable - he's not criminally liable for shooting his girlfriend. What happened when it came to this late stage of the trial, the defense team presented their own psychiatrist Doctor Merryll Vorster, who had diagnosed Pistorius with generalized anxiety disorder. It was the state then, on their interpretation of the Criminal Procedures Act, found that in the event that such evidence does exist or comes to lie in a trial then it is the duty of the court to then refer the accused for a psychiatric evaluation. So that's why it came so late in the case - it's usually the onus of the defense at the beginning if they are going to offer such a defense in the trial. It's not the case here - it's the evidence presented so late that the state felt that it was then the court's duty, in terms of the law, to compel the accused to go for this evaluation. Now, we can make the beginning of this...

MARTIN: Can you tell us in a little bit about what that means or what was the upshot of all that, do we know?

BATEMAN: Well, we came back, remember, going into this it was the defense witness who found that Oscar Pistorius had this Generalized Anxiety Disorder which may have impacted his judgment when he shot Reeva Steenkamp. We've come back from this panel of experts who evaluated him. What they found that he suffers from significant depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. These are both the result of post-the-shooting. As a result of the shooting, he suffers from these disorder. However, they found that there was no evidence to suggest that there was pre-existing Generalized Anxiety Disorder and started and at the current stage he certainly does not present with any of the symptoms to be classified as suffering from this particular disorder. So his own defense psychiatrist's evidence, prior to going into this evaluation, has pretty much been overruled.

MARTIN: There were reports that the defense would rest today, did that occur?

BATEMAN: We were hoping for that. They have called their last witness, the last witness has been excused. Where we ended today was that the defense wanted to consult with the state psychiatrist it was an application by the defense which was ultimately overruled, it's not going to happen. So where we ended was a defense advocate, Barry Roux, just asking the court they wanted to adjourn early today, just for one more night, just to, I suppose, go back and consult with their client just to ensure that they have covered all the bases and there is no need to call any further witnesses. All indications are is that we'll wrap up tomorrow and we'll get those dates for closing argument.

MARTIN: As they move now to draft these closing arguments, could you tell us what the key points are that you expect from both sides. I'm particularly interested though if the prosecution presented a motive for why Pistorius would have intentionally I believe, is it? is it? Is that the...

BATEMAN: Quite, quite.

MARTIN: ... Charge, killed this woman?

BATEMAN: That's the issue, I mean, the benchmark for murder would be the intentional killing of the particular - the victim here. And we haven't got a motive, but they don't need a motive I mean it's obviously nice to have one, but unfortunately they just don't have it. It's circumstantial evidence -based case and the evidence of the state's case is that there was this fight late on the 13th of February that went on into the morning. This is supported by a neighbor who had heard arguments at one o'clock in the morning. They say that Reeva Steenkamp was up at that hour - this is also proven by the food that's in her stomach, we've got the defense state pathologist testifying on how quickly food is processed. And then of course the screams that were heard by the neighbors following - I'm sorry, before those bangs in the early hours of the morning. That's the state's case that there was this fight rebuffed let in fear from Oscar Pistorius. She hid inside this bathroom, and in this fit of rage, he fired four shots which ultimately killed her.

MARTIN: And the defense?

BATEMAN: Different story from the defense. What the defense will be arguing is there's two sets of noises - they're going to say the first set of noises was the cricket back - sorry the gunshots which killed Reeva Steenkamp. The screens at the neighbors heard, they say, was the screams of Oscar Pistoriusis calling for help and that second set of noises, which the state says are the gunshots, they say are the cricket bat hit the door where Oscar was trying to rescue his girlfriend. They say that Oscar Pistorius believed that his girlfriend or believed there was a intruder in his house and that she had slipped away to the bathroom while he was bringing in a fan and closing the curtains to the bedroom. And ultimately, they're going to argue that it's a tragic accident and a case of mistaken identity that he never intended to kill his girlfriend.

MARTIN: Now, of course South Africa does not have a jury system so the verdict will be down to the judge - Judge Thokozile Masipa. Do we have any indication - has she shown us anything that would indicate how she seems to be leaning here?

BATEMAN: Certainly not. I mean we would go through and you could - I suppose you could guess on the certain objections that she might be ruling on one particular day. But she certainly hasn't given a hint at all. Plus, I'd say it's still too early just yet to get an idea of where this is going. We still have these closing arguments and it will be considerably detailed in the way they'll be submitted to the court. I think only once we get our hands on those and have a good study of which party is presenting, they will wrap up all the evidence. I mean I try to do it now but they will certainly wrap it up now together and put it to the court in a matter that would best explain their case. And I think once we get hold of those we'll be able to have an idea of where this case is going.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, there was a video leaked - apparently was leaked this weekend - that shows Oscar Pistorius reenacting the night of the shooting and it's been reported that this was illegally obtained. Could you just tell us a little bit about that, what's the relevance of this? Does this seem to have any impact?

BATEMAN: Well, it certainly won't have any impact on the case. It wasn't raised in court today, but what this is is - it was Arnold Pisrorious', Oscars uncle, he's almost has been the main go-to-person in terms of the family and representation and dealing with the lawyers. He was part of inviting this company called The Evidence Room, an Ohio-based company which deals in crime scene 3-D recreation. Now, they came through to South Africa in October last year. They filmed Oscar Pistorius re-creating, or reenacting rather, the night he shot Reeva Steenkamp. So he was walking on his stumps he had his arm up in front of him, as if holding his gun up- he was asked to scream. His sister Amy was playing the role of Reeva in a toilet at his uncle's house where he went and collected her off the floor in the bathroom- he carried her downstairs. And this was all filmed. Now, this is the footage which was sold so we understand that the Evidence Room was shopping around for the highest bidder through several media houses and it just happened to be the Australians that coughed up the most money and this was sold to them for their big exclusive.

MARTIN: But never presented at trial so the officially not a part of the case at all?

BATEMAN: Certainly, it is not part of the case. The defense is is part of preparation and it was never intended to be presented in court anyway.

MARTIN: All right, Barry, thank you so much for keeping us up-to-date here. Barry Bateman is a senior reporter for Eyewitness News in South Africa. He's also working on a book "Behind the Door: The Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp Story." With us from Pretoria, Barry, thank you once again.

BATEMAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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