Lawyers in Pistorius case become accidental celebrities in Twitterverse

By David Smith

Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp (inset). Photo / AP
Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp (inset). Photo / AP

The world's most famous murder suspect, Oscar Pistorius, returns to the witness box tonight to face further gruelling cross-examination, as signs start to show that public sympathy is swinging away from him in favour of his chief tormentor.

The Paralympic athlete faces hours, and possibly days, more grilling by state prosecutor Gerrie Nel over the killing of his girlfriend inside a toilet cubicle at his home in Pretoria, South Africa.

Pistorius, who claims he panicked because he thought there was an intruder, is likely to be asked why Reeva Steenkamp locked herself in the toilet, how he fired by "accident", not once but four times, and what happened in the immediate aftermath, when he broke down the door with a cricket bat.

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The emotionally fragile Pistorius, 27, admitted making mistakes during his testimony last week and also lost ground in the court of Twitter opinion, where Nel has become something of a star.

Eusebius McKaiser, an influential author and broadcaster with 57,000 followers, tweeted: "Nel just nailed it. If Reeva wasn't scared she'd have said something to Oscar and not be [sic] quiet behind the door as he shouts." When McKaiser did an impression of Nel on his radio show, cross-examining callers who pretended to be Pistorius, it was indicative of how the trial has become a cultural phenomenon, bringing offices to a standstill and colonising swaths of the internet.

Oscar Pistorius. File photo / AP
Oscar Pistorius. File photo / AP

Blanket TV and radio coverage is turning Nel and his opposite number, defence counsel Barry Roux, into reluctant celebrities, with their names attached to satirical Twitter accounts, their faces caricatured by cartoonists, their words spun into spoof rap songs. The legal jousting can sometimes look like public entertainment.

For the first month of the trial, Roux hogged the limelight as he rattled state witnesses. His favoured phrase, "I put it to you", became an unstoppable meme. One website produced a list of "The top 10 Barry Roux parodies".

Questioning a neighbour about the night Steenkamp died, he said: "Maybe you and your wife should have stood together in the witness box." This led judge Thokozile Masipa to ask him: "Aren't you going a bit far?"

At that stage Nel, nicknamed "the pit bull", was content to take a back seat. Observers said he was too casual, perhaps half-hearted. That changed last week in an explosion of withering questions, laser-like attention to detail and a savaging of Pistorius worthy of a hound deliberately starved of meat.

"Barry Roux was rude and obnoxious with the state witnesses, so it's a case of getting your own back," said Laurie Pieters-James, an independent criminologist who has attended the trial. "Roux was sarcastic and belittling: 'You are in some way inferior to me.' Gerrie Nel's approach is different. He's directly attacking: 'You are lying.' He's much more direct in going for the jugular."

Masipa warned him: "Mind your language, Mr Nel. You don't call the witness a liar, not while he is in the witness box."

A legal source, who did not wish to be named, said: "If you ask, 'Is his cross-examination style unique to Oscar Pistorius?', the answer is no. That's how he's always been and there's no change. He just goes for it. People say he goes for the jugular, but he's got points to make and he makes them. He's not shy."

The source said Nel had no regrets about displaying the graphic police photo of Steenkamp after her death and could introduce more: "It was to show Pistorius the evidence. He blew out her brains and he's been vomiting into a bucket, but can he please look at what he did. You show the accused the evidence and the post-mortem in every case."

Another high court-based source said Nel was a thick-skinner loner. "He's a quiet guy. There are only two things in his life: right and wrong. There's no maybe."

- Observer

Painting wildly different pictures

Two starkly different portraits of the famous Paralympian have been offered up for the judge to consider.

The defence:

The first, drawn out by the defence, showed Oscar Pistorius as a good Christian from a close-knit family who never took drugs and drank sparsely. He did much for charity, including a Mozambican landmine-clearing operation whose patron was Nelson Mandela, and was a good Samaritan too, once stepping in to help a woman being attacked and, on another occasion, a man from being stoned to death.

The prosecution:

The second offers a rather different sketch, of a man who loved guns, fast cars and photogenic blondes, who had a quick temper, a selfish nature and an unwillingness to take responsibility for anything that went wrong in his life. This was a man, the prosecution said, who "picked on" his loving girlfriend to the point of telling her off for chewing gum. He was so cavalier with firearms that he accidentally set one off when he asked for it to be passed to him in a crowded restaurant, and fired another out of the sunroof of a car for a joke.

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