‘You always show dead person’s picture’Comment on this story
Pretoria - It started with a shock.
The effect of Oscar Pistorius’s bullets on Reeva Steenkamp’s head compared with an exploding watermelon.
And prosecutor Gerrie Nel’s demand: Take responsibility for what you have done. Look, I am here to show you what you have done. Say the words: you killed her!
Shocking, but necessary, seemed to be the consensus from both court virgins and the experts.
Pieter de la Rey, an attorney at SG Attorneys, said that in the State’s shoes, he would always show the dead person’s picture. He said Nel had cut to the core very quickly.
In Pistorius’s testimony, we heard a lot about side issues – his dogs, his history, his emotions – but Nel quickly brought the focus back to the real victim, Steenkamp.
After all, this case is about a dead woman, not an emotional man.
“My sense of it was he (Nel) is trying to get that momentum shift,” said De la Rey.
“Here is a rude awakening; yes, you are fighting for your life in essence, but let’s get to the truth and cut to the chase.”
Professor Stephen Tuson, of the Wits University School of Law, said there was no rule barring Nel from showing the pictures in public.
“The general principle of our law dictates that all criminal matters must be heard in open court,” said Tuson.
“There is no limitation on the use of exhibits and photos as far as they are relevant.”
The picture was possibly an attempt to make Pistorius angry or emotional, as he would then be less guarded.
“The idea of cross-examination is you don’t want the witness to think too much. If the witness has the opportunity to consider and think out all his answers, he’s unlikely to be spontaneous and honest,” said Tuson.
As Nel left behind the photograph of Steenkamp’s shattered skull, he gave Pistorius a small warning.
“I’ll deal with lots of these, but I’m going to deal with one this afternoon,” he said.
He then began with questions about why Pistorius had stated in his plea bargain that the scene had been tampered with, and how he knew this.
The warning was clear: the road of cross-examination is a long one, and you and I will walk it together.
Tuson said a cross-examination technique was to lead the witness through the improbabilities in their version; to say: “Well, if this and this is what happens normally, why would this improbable scenario have happened?”
He said that if there was improbability after improbability, the State would begin to build a picture of a witness whose version was unreliable.
Towards the end of Wednesday afternoon, with Pistorius having not sufficiently answered Nel’s questions about whether he fired the gun accidentally, Nel asked him: “Are you thinking about the implications of your answer?”
Normally, a witness who was telling the truth would not have to think too much, he would just relate from memory what happened, said Tuson.
“It’s one thing to think carefully, to remember what happened. It’s a different thing to think about the consequences of my answer.”
De la Rey said it was likely that Pistorius was feeling cornered, and hence he was not giving “yes” and “no” answers but was considering the implication carefully.
Ironically, the longer Pistorius refuses to give “yes-no” answers, the longer he will spend in cross-examination.