Murder trial grips South Africa as Oscar Pistorius set free on bail

Publish date:
Oscar Pistorius' murder trial is becoming South Africa's version of the O.J. Simpson case.

Oscar Pistorius' murder trial is becoming South Africa's version of the O.J. Simpson case.

PRETORIA, South Africa -- The Oscar Pistorius murder trial has gripped South Africa, and in a span of seven days it seems like the nation has traveled light years.

Oscar Pistorius has been set free, having been granted bail (1 million Rands, $112,000 U.S.) by a South African magistrate last Friday; the investigating officer has been pulled off the case after it emerged he was facing seven charges of attempted murder; the country's top detective has been brought in to clean up the mess; Pistorius has turned over his cards, revealing to the world what his defense will be when this case goes to trial; and South Africa is working its way towards the "acceptance" phase of Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief.

It has been a dramatic and emotional week. And that's just the bail battle. The court case is now due to resume in early June and will almost certainly be postponed. As we enter the eye of the storm, it's time to reflect on what has transpired and what we can expect over the next few months. The media hype will die down, Pistorius will fade from front page headlines temporarily. And that's when it all gets interesting.

Before us we have two opposing versions of events. Prosecutors have set out to prove "premeditated murder" (the gunning down of an innocent woman after a domestic fight), while the world's best-known paralympian says he woke up in the dead of night, heard an intruder and -- after experiencing a sense of terror -- fired to protect himself and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Tragically, he says, she turned out to be the person hiding in the toilet.

The police's investigating officer, Hilton Botha, seemed -- for a moment -- set to ruin the state's case through shoddy police work. But he managed to pass the baton while his bosses spun a tale about him being a seasoned detective who did the best he could considering the time available.

ELISEEV: South Africa paralyzed by Pistorius murder charge

Botha admitted to several mistakes including: he contaminated the crime scene; didn't check telephone records; shot his mouth off without having the forensic/ballistic evidence to back up his claims; first told Pistorius he would not object to bail and then changed his mind; and stumbled over key evidence, ranging from how far away the witnesses were to the substance (testosterone or herbal remedy) seized from the house.

Last Thursday, I wrote a story for Johannesburg-based Eyewitness News about Botha's pending criminal charges, which date back to December 2011. He and two other officers were arrested in a nearby province for shooting at a taxi carrying seven people. The officers were, at the time, also accused of being drunk while driving a police vehicle and using their state firearms. The charges against them were initially withdrawn in court, but were re-instated two weeks before the Pistorius shooting on Valentine's Day.

The same afternoon the story broke, national police commissioner Riah Phiyega held an urgent press conference to announce Botha was being taken off the case. She tried to convince a skeptical nation that the reason was because the bail process had ended (only the court ruling was outstanding) and more experienced detectives were needed to prepare the case for trial. She praised Botha, refused to suspend him and claimed the whole saga was not an embarrassment to the police.

It's no secret police officers are often accused of crimes by those they arrest. It's part and parcel of the job -- sometimes, it's a strategy to ruin the case. The allegations against Botha are yet to be tested and he is certainly innocent until proven guilty. But the breakdown in communication between the National Prosecuting Authority and his bosses, along with his performance in court, are -- no matter what Phiyega says -- deeply embarrassing. The charges against him are serious. On Sunday, one of South Africa's main newspapers, the Sunday Times, described the scandal around Botha with the following headline: "A shameful day for policing in SA". The question was asked: if this is how the most high-profile cases are treated, imagine what happens to the every-day ones?

The new team is unlikely to make the same mistakes. A well-known and respected detective, Mike Van Aardt, has been brought in to do the legwork. Van Aardt has proved himself as a behind-the-scenes wizard on some of the most high-profile cases South Africa has seen.

Last week's three-day marathon bail hearing was a preview of the case against Pistorius with detailed arguments over the legal principle governing "premeditated murder" and an avalanche of detail about the shooting. As both sides stated their case, the media produced a flurry of stories, including info graphics and video walk-throughs of the house, and spoke to many experts. There was a frenzy like South Africa had not seen before. A single reporter's Twitter following increased from 10,000 to nearly 150,000 in the space of a few days. Social media experts described the court hearing as the country's "Mumbai moment", when the world turned to Twitter to follow the 2008 bombing in India. Emails came from as far away as Moscow, praising local journalists for their work. A tweet from media law expert Emma Sadlier summed it up: "To say that Twitter has been a game-changer for the way we report the courts is like saying that Mozart wrote a couple of catchy tunes."

Last Friday, Magistrate Desmond Nair delivered an agonizing but detailed ruling, which lasted nearly two hours. Listening to it felt like conquering a storm out at sea, with the boat rocking one way, then the other, and then back again. His sentences crashed like waves, carrying frothy legal principles. Public opinion pelted down like rain. The tension was unbearable. Often a magistrate will make it clear early which way he will rule, but Nair gave nothing away.

In the end, he granted Pistorius bail. His decision boiled down to this: while Nair believes prosecutors have a compelling case and Pistorius has many questions to answer, the athlete is not a flight risk. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel summoned the words of South Africa's president Jacob Zuma (who spoke about violence against women) and used Wikileaks founder Julian Assange as an example of a famous person who remains untouchable, hiding in a foreign embassy. He spoke about Shrien Dewani, who's fighting extradition to South Africa to stand trial for the murder of his wife, Anni, and the violent gang-rape and murder of 17-year-old Anene Booysen, a crime that shocked South Africa earlier this year. Nair stood firm, but did shackle Pistorius with some harsh bail conditions: he is not allowed to leave the city of Pretoria without permission, has to surrender his passport, cannot be found in any departure terminal of an airport, can't drink, contact certain witnesses and will have to allow random inspections from various officials. Importantly, Nair also said the defense had failed to weaken the state's case.

Nel and his team did not oppose the court's decision, supporting a suggestion that they never had their hearts set on opposing bail. Their plan may have simply been to use the bail hearing as a Trojan Horse to get inside Pistorius' defense and to lock him into a version which can't be changed later. In South African law, anything said during a bail application can, and does, get used during trial.

So while many may have been surprised that the bail application turned into a mini-trial, that's exactly what Nel was counting on. The hearing has also given us an idea of what aspects Pistorius' legal team will need to focus on in the trial. Magistrate Nair said he had difficulty understanding why Pistorius "ventured into danger" instead of escaping through the bedroom door, why he didn't try to find out where Steenkamp was or try to verify who was in the toilet. Nair also questioned why Steenkamp would not have screamed back from the toilet if he was yelling at the "intruder". Expect these questions to echo throughout the trial.

While police wait for fast-tracked forensic evidence to come back, they are likely to focus on cellphone records in an attempt to reconstruct what happened the night before and immediately after the shooting. They will interview more witnesses and investigate Pistorius' so-called "dark side". They will work on punching holes through the version he painted, in such detail, while trying to secure his freedom. Investigators will clear up confusion surrounding neighbors who claim to have heard Pistorius and Steenkamp argue for an hour before the shooting. Sources told Eyewitness News that, at this stage, police are not looking for a "silver bullet" but are exploring all angles to stitch together a narrative. They hope all the different bits of evidence (forensic, circumstantial, etc.) will align into an explanation the defense won't be able to break apart.

Meanwhile, Pistorius' p.r. machine will chug along, trying to squash scandals or negative stories. This weekend it had to deal with an alleged hacked Twitter account and revelations that Oscar's brother, Carl, is on trial for culpable homicide, following a 2008 car accident. Those involved in the trial have a tough job ahead as public interest in the case is immense.

The Steenkamp family have hired a private investigator to help them monitor the case and continue to remind the world about the victim in this tragedy.

The trial is not likely to get underway soon. In South Africa, a year is not an unusually long time to wait to have your day in court, especially if the case needs to be moved from a lower court to a higher one. With appeals, the process stretches even further. It took four years from the time former police chief Jackie Selebi was arrested for corruption to the time he was sent to jail (by the same prosecutor, Gerrie Nel).

As the world watches, a country anxiously awaits.

Alex Eliseev is a South African writer and senior reporter at Eyewitness News. You can follow him at @alexeliseev.