Johannesburg - Oscar Pistorius let out a gratuitous howl. “She wasn’t breathing,” he said. His face turned red and his sobs were loud and mechanical, like the cries of an animal gnawing its bloodied leg from a snare.
Tears welled in my eyes. Just hearing that sound made me feel uncomfortable. Journalists don’t cry – it’s a professional faux pas of note. But that was my gut reaction: to cry when others cry.
But as I was blinking back my tears, the jokes were already rolling. And the Oscar goes to Oscar! Who knew the man could act? Was I just an over-sensitive schmuck who couldn’t spell “gullible”? Or were their subjective jokes just as pointless and uninformed as my tears?
Jackie de Wet, from the criminology and forensic studies department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said your perspective on whether Pistorius was acting would come from how sympathetic or cynical you were towards the man. There was no way to tell from our perspective if he was being genuine. De Wet said that if we were able to assess Pistorius’s other behaviour, we would have more clues. For example, if Pistorius said he had given up guns but then was found on a hunting trip, we would be able to cast some more enlightened judgment.
But everyone does have a “tell” – little physical signals we portray for different emotions. These can become more pronounced when we are stressed. “Tells” can take many forms and go well beyond crying out in court - how you hold your hands, lick your lips, move your eyes, or even breathe, is a sign.
“Everyone has specific mannerisms that they do in certain contexts,” De Wet said. “It’s almost like your own little safety blanket, so your brain can catch up and think about what to do and how to react.”
But tiny “tells” aside – all are in agreement that Pistorius was definitely coached for his time on the stand. It would have been irresponsible for his legal team to do otherwise. “There is no doubt that he was coached,” said De Wet. “He was told that at certain times ‘we want you not to react, and if you do, you must keep it to a minimum’.”
Even the training he received long before he knew he would be standing up in this trial perhaps helped him.
Professor Demitri Constantinou, of the sport and exercise medicine department at Wits University, said that when athletes prepared for a competition, they would put their mind into a specific way of thinking.
“If one looks at the prioritisation of a goal or outcome, the same principles may apply because he (Pistorius) has been taught and knows how to prepare for something in particular,” said Constantinou.
Professor James Grant, of the Wits University School of Law, said it was quite usual for a legal team to run through the evidence of the witness beforehand, but that Barry Roux and his legal team needed to be very careful not to put words into the mouth of the witness.
“To do otherwise would be unethical. I have every reason to expect that Barry Roux, whether you like him or not, is thoroughly ethical,” said Grant.
Roux could indicate to Pistorius that what he was saying might be interpreted in a particular way by the law, but could not distort his version, he added.
“He wouldn’t be allowed to say to Oscar ‘remember in your testimony to make it clear that you drew the curtain, including the blackout blind, because you need the court to understand or to believe that it was entirely dark, irrespective of the truth’,” said Grant.
It would be pushing things to have a word-for-word script for Pistorius’s testimony, but they would be aware that even one incorrect word out of his mouth had the potential to convict him, Grant said.
But as Pistorius gasps and grunts on the stand, it’s not our opinion that matters, but the view of the judge and court. Grant said sympathy could not be taken into account when deciding his guilt in terms of the murder charge; this would be based on the facts alone.
“We need to know what he was thinking at the crucial time. Those four or five seconds it took to fire the gun - we need to know what he was thinking then,” said Grant. He said that if the court saw his shows of remorse as genuine, they could be taken into account over sentencing.