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Johannesburg - It’s going to be a duel of the experts at the Oscar Pistorius trial next week. Forensic evidence will be paramount when it comes to proving whether the athlete intended killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Legal and forensic specialists believe Pistorius’s defence is going to have a lot of explaining to do.
On Wednesday, forensic science expert Dr David Klatzow and the Wits Law Clinic’s Professor Stephen Tuson briefed journalists on what to expect in what may be the most anticipated criminal trial in South Africa’s history.
Klatzow said Pistorius’s defence team would face a number of problems based on the athlete’s version of events that he revealed at his bail application last year.
Pistorius claims that, on the night Steenkamp was killed, he opened fire because he was terrified that an intruder had broken into his home.
Pistorius shot four bullets through the door into the toilet, where he said he believed the intruder was hiding, but Steenkamp was the one behind the closed door.
Providing such a detailed version of events prior to trial is highly unusual, according to Tuson and Klatzow, and it’s because of this that Pistorius may be forced to take the stand. Unless he stands up to the harsh cross-examination expected from prosecutor Gerrie Nel, it’s possible the presiding judge will see his silence as a sign of guilt.
The bail application also provided what the experts believe is a clear case of culpable homicide, but the State has upped the ante to push for a murder conviction.
According to Tuson, it’s going to be the expert witnesses – from both prosecution and defence – who will turn the tide when it comes to judgment. They are going to have to prove – through legitimate evidence, rather than hearsay – whether Pistorius was telling the truth in his earlier testimony.
But with a witness list 107 names long, it appears many will be called to determine Pistorius’s character, whether he is responsible with firearms, and regarding his history of angry outbursts.
It’s possible the defence will succeed in getting this testimony thrown out of court, say the experts, but it will be an uphill battle and ultimately up to the judge’s discretion.
However, Klatzow believes the defence has other worries. Firstly, the law is clear on when a person is allowed to kill. In cases of self-defence, to avoid murder charges, one must use only the minimum amount of force.
But Pistorius shot through the bathroom door four times with a powerful 9mm handgun, without knowing where the “intruder” was and without being in immediate danger. “Perhaps he could have called out or fired a warning shot,” said Klatzow.
Pistorius’s position in relation to the door is also a key factor in the prosecution’s case. Klatzow said any reasonable person, especially with limited mobility, would put some space between himself and the door where an intruder could burst out and overwhelm his victim.
The forensic expert also believes that, despite reports that the crime scene was contaminated due to police incompetence, it would be difficult for the defence to render the evidence inadmissible.
However, Klatzow believes the speed with which the defence moved to start its own investigation at the scene of the crime shows its own team of well-known experts will battle with the prosecution to corroborate Pistorius’s own version.
The outcome of the case will rely on whether Pistorius intended to kill the person behind the door, regardless of whether he knew it was Steenkamp.
Klatzow believes that Pistorius’s legal team may be up to the task of explaining all of these issues, as advocate Barry Roux “is no fool”.
But, even if Pistorius is found guilty, the question remains: Was his use of a firearm considered negligent, reckless or just an accident? According to Tuson, that will be the key to his sentencing.