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Oscar catches a lucky break

Pretoria - It was an anti-climax of epic proportions. Friday Oscar Pistorius, it was rumoured, would take the stand to give his version of what happened the night he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

It is crucial, believe some legal experts, that he steps into the witness box.

Oscar Pistorius leaves the Pretoria High Court. He is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Picture: Chris Collingridge. Credit: THE STAR

If he doesn’t explain what happened, he will almost certainly be found guilty of murder, they say.

Facing Pistorius will be State prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the man who ripped the former police commissioner Jackie Selebi to shreds when he took the stand in his corruption trial.

But what could have been a day of gripping testimony was not to be.

Judge Thokozile Masipa postponed the trial to April 7, because one of her assessors had fallen ill.

The news left dozens of local and foreign reporters, as well as the Pistorius and Steenkamp families, shocked.

The last-minute postponement has given Pistorius and his defence team a breather at a time when the trial enters a critical stage.

A defence lawyer with over 30 years’ experience told The Star it was imperative that Pistorius took the stand to disprove the State’s version of events.

The defence lawyer, who did not want to be named, said the testimony that witnesses had given so far had presented a host of contradictions.

Much had been said about these contradictions, but that was often the case, the lawyer said.

All that really matters now is whether Pistorius’s testimony will be believed over the State’s version.

“When he takes the stand, everyone will see the other side, Pistorius’s case, and there will be experts from the defence who will reconstruct on the shooting.

“Pistorius and his witnesses will have to give evidence that the court finds preferable to the State witnesses,” the lawyer said.

The problem, however, is that in giving so much information during Pistorius’s bail application, the defence set out its case before the trial even began.

So the State might try and disprove his version of the shooting that night rather than prove what it says happened. Although it was unwise to do so, the difficulty for the defence was that Pistorius had been charged with premeditated murder and his lawyers were focused on getting bail.

“Earlier on, they committed themselves to a version. Now, even if he wanted to change it, he can’t without a huge credibility problem,” the lawyer said.

Wits School of Law Professor Stephen Tuson said Pistorius would probably be called to testify first (as is customary in our courts) to prevent an accusation that he tailored his evidence. University of Cape Town law lecturer Kelly Phelps added that it was the State, however, that had the burden of proof in any criminal case and had to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. The State’s version needs to be the only reasonable inference that can be drawn from the evidence presented.

The State closed its case on Tuesday after calling 21 of the 107 witnesses on its witness list including Pistorius’s neighbours, a security guard at the estate, the pathologist, a ballistics expert, a cellphone expert, Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend and former friends.

Meanwhile, a formal application by lawyers representing various broadcasters and publications was also filed this morning for the opportunity to film Pistorius during his testimony.

Non-expert witnesses have been given the right to ask that their testimonies not be broadcast live.

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