Nel likes a bit of courtroom drama
Durban - Hotshot advocate Gerrie Nel – the Oscar Pistorius trial prosecutor – on Wednesday shared legal tips with law students in Durban and revealed his favourite courtroom drama – Legally Blonde.
Far from the ruthless and stern prosecutor many South Africans witnessed during the Pistorius trial last year, Nel showed his lighter side, joked around and gave the law hopefuls advice at a packed lecture hall at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College campus.
He was speaking on “The Life of a Prosecutor” and revealed that he had never considered joining the private sector.
He said South Africa had “brilliant prosecutors” and he was merely “lucky” to represent the State in many high-profile cases.
Helping victims “restore justice” was the most important and fulfilling part of his job as a prosecutor, he added.
Nel referred to the Pistorius trial numerous times, but did not mention the former Olympian’s name during the one hour-long lecture.
Giving advice to the students, he said it was important that they knew the case they had taken and the defence team. He also stressed the importance of the consultation process with witnesses.
His “golden rule” was to always make it clear to witnesses that whatever was said and done during consultation, he had no problem with that being heard in court.
At times witnesses lost their credibility by being unsure, when asked questions in court that they did not expect to be asked – even about things that had been discussed during consultation, he explained.
Regarding cross-examination, he said in many trials, he had seen opposing counsel miss opportunities to exploit answers given by a witness because they were too focused on asking prepared questions than actively listening to answers.
“An opportunity is missed by not following up on answers. Don’t always pursue your line of cross-examination. Follow on the answers, even if you know a person is trying to sidetrack you.”
Nel revealed that he was not a fan of Hollywood court dramas, but said he did enjoy My Cousin Vinny and Legally Blonde.
Affirming his point of listening to answers, he referred to Legally Blonde, in which a fashion-conscious lawyer who knew all about hairdressing struggled with her cross-examination until she listened to the answer given by a witness (who was really the murderer in the case) who testified that she had taken a shower after having a perm (which is not done).
The accused cracked and confessed to the crime after this was pointed out.
Nel, however, told the law students that it was unlikely people would confess to crimes on the stand, and said instead of firing them up and saying, “You are lying”, it was more effective to suggest, “Could you not perhaps be mistaken?”
And what does it take to work on a big case?
“Commitment,” he said. “When everyone goes home you prepare for the next witness for the next day. That (commitment) never stops.”
On the subject of more trials being broadcast on television, he said it would be good for educating society about the criminal justice system.
“I think it’s brilliant. One of the principles of our courts is that of access to everything; you are entitled to get into any court and witness proceedings… I mean, who of us doesn’t know what’s going on in Parliament?
“We all sat there and we watched. Clever things happened there with all those motions and things and it’s brilliant, it’s exactly the same principle. If we have access to Parliament and we see what’s going on there, the mere fact that we are sitting in Durban and not in Cape Town is not an issue,” he said.
Reflecting on the Pistorius trial, he said it was incredible how much interest it had generated.
“It was a good thing (to broadcast); lots of people learned a lot,” he said.
At one stage he and Barry Roux (defence advocate) were talking “and I said to him, ‘The only two people in this country who really don’t know what’s going on are Barry and I’, because the rest of the people knew exactly what the judge would decide. Everybody knew much better.”