Cape Town - An out-of-court settlement following months of negotiations between Oscar Pistorius' lawyers and representatives of the parents of his slain girlfriend could work against the Olympic athlete at his March murder trial, a legal expert said Thursday.
The two sides have been in ongoing talks since about August, a lawyer for Reeva Steenkamp's family told The Associated Press in email correspondence, and a settlement could involve Pistorius paying Steenkamp's family in the region of R 3 million ($275 000), according to media reports.
Steenkamp lawyer Dup de Bruyn first told The AP in August that the parties were negotiating, but both sides have declined to comment on the details, including the amount being considered, because of their sensitive nature.
"Discussions are ongoing and clearly one would like to reach a settlement," Pistorius lawyer Brian Webber said of nearly six months of talks. "It's fair to say the negotiations have been going on for some time."
Pistorius family spokeswoman Anneliese Burgess said in a statement to AP that "any dialogue between Oscar's lawyer and the Steenkamp family is a private matter and out of respect for Reeva's memory, we will not be commenting in any way on this."
The trial of the double amputee is due to start Mar. 3, when South Africa's one-time sporting hero will face charges of murder and illegal possession of ammunition, and also be indicted on two other charges relating to him allegedly shooting a gun recklessly in a public place on two separate occasions, prosecutors say.
Pistorius killed Steenkamp at his Pretoria home on Feb. 14 and was charged with premeditated murder, which can carry a sentence of life imprisonment in South Africa with a minimum of 25 years before the chance of parole. He denies murder and says he shot Steenkamp with his licensed 9 mm handgun through a toilet cubicle door by mistake, fearing she was a dangerous nighttime intruder.
Any settlement before trial would help Steenkamp's parents, Barry and June, who relied on their daughter - a model and reality TV star - for financial help.
Pistorius could seek non-disclosure clauses in any settlement, law professor and practicing attorney Stephen Tuson said, as well as insist that the agreement is made "without prejudice" - meaning he does not admit any fault. However, any settlement might still be used for cross-examination of Pistorius by the prosecution if he testifies at his trial, Tuson said.
"It definitely does provide material for the prosecution, to just niggle, a niggling question or two," Tuson said. "You paid. Why if you are innocent?"
The long negotiations are believed to be nearing their conclusion, with Pistorius' lawyers reportedly hopeful of finalizing an agreement before the 27-year-old's blockbuster trial begins at a high court in the South African capital Pretoria. A conviction, either on a murder charge or on a lesser negligent killing charge, could leave an already financially stretched Pistorius open to a large civil claim.
State prosecutors are not involved in the private negotiations between Pistorius and Steenkamp's family.
Tuson, who is not part of the case but has been following it, said a court was "entitled to draw inferences" if Pistorius declined to answer questions - as is his right as a defendant - on why he paid Steenkamp's family compensation.
"Personally, I would defer ... any admissions or any settlement because I don't want any inferences to be drawn," Tuson said.
Burgess, the spokeswoman, said Pistorius was still "overwhelmed" and continued to spend time with his family while preparing for his trial. One of the world's most famous sportsmen, Pistorius is rarely seen in public now and is thought to be still living at his uncle's house in an exclusive suburb of Pretoria after he was released on bail nearly a year ago.
The 400-meter athlete had been training as often as four or five days a week for around a month before Christmas, Pistorius' agent Peet van Zyl said, but was now "scaling down" his running again in preparation for a trial which is likely to be one of the highest profile cases involving a sports figure in years.
The case will be heard by female judge Thokozile Masipa.