Pretoria: It came down to a question of improbabilities and a "great leap."
On the fourth day of relentless cross-examination at his murder trial, Oscar Pistorius was taken back to the early hours of Feb. 14, 2013, when he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, 29, in what the prosecution says was an act of premeditated murder and the track star, a double amputee, says was a mistake. (Also read: Oscar Pistorius, Reeva Steenkamp argued the night she was shot)
In close detail, the prosecutor, Gerrie Nel, had Pistorius, 27, relive the final intimate moments of Steenkamp's life, as the athlete walked unsteadily down an unlit passage on his stumps from his darkened bedroom, a pistol in his right hand, and into a bathroom where he fired four rounds at the locked door of a toilet cubicle, believing, by his account, that at least one intruder was behind the door.
Then, Pistorius said, "I ran down the passage. I ran past my bed" to look for his girlfriend and call for help.
"When I realized that Reeva wasn't on the bed, that was the first time I thought it might be Reeva in the bathroom," Pistorius said.
But, Nel said, the "first thing you would think is that you would check whether she left through the bedroom door" rather than assume she had been in the bathroom. (Prosecution says Oscar Pistorius tailored evidence)
It required a "great leap" for Pistorius to go from believing that he had shot intruders to suspecting that he had opened fire on his girlfriend, said Nel, whose reputation as a pugnacious prosecutor has earned him the title "pit bull." (Suggested read: Oscar Pistoius is untruthful and egotist, says prosecutor Nel)
"You see, Mr. Pistorius, this is one of the most crucial issues that makes your version so improbable," Nel said, seeking to establish that the athlete's evidence on the stand was, in the prosecutor's words Monday, "so improbable that it cannot possibly be true." (Related: Oscar Pistorius says 'no reason' to fire fatal shot)
The exchanges went to the core of a case that has drawn a global audience and transfixed many in South Africa as the hearings, which opened on March 3, focus in ever greater detail on the state of Pistorius' mind in the early hours on Valentine's Day 2013, when, the prosecution maintains, he killed Steenkamp in a jealous rage.
The spectacle of the trial also offered a stark counterpoint to the days of 2012 when Pistorius, a double amputee since infancy, not only triumphed at the Paralympic Games but also competed against able-bodied athletes at the London Olympics a month earlier, earning great adulation. On his return home, he and Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, were depicted as a gilded couple.
But that glittery trajectory of success and celebrity has collapsed. Headlines that once lauded Pistorius now focus on his increasing discomfort as a hard-nose prosecutor sets out to paint a picture of inconsistency, improbability and mendacity. If convicted of premeditated murder, he would face a minimum prison term of 25 years.
Twice during Monday's questioning, Pistorius broke down, as he has several times in the trial, his shoulders heaving as he sobbed. On other occasions, his voice quavered as he testified and, ashen-faced, he seemed on the brink of tears.
But his displays of deepening distress drew only a sarcastic question from Nel, who asked, "You are not using your emotional state as an escape are you?"
The prosecutor argued that forensic evidence linking the gunshots and Steenkamp's wounds proved she had been standing in the bathroom facing the door when Pistorius opened fire.
"She was talking to you," Nel said. "Why would she be there except if she was talking to you?"
Pistorius said repeatedly that he had not known who was in the bathroom. "I didn't fire to attack," he said. "I didn't have time to think."
"You fired at Reeva," Nel said bluntly.
"I did not fire at Reeva," Pistorius said in a choked, strained voice, seeming overwhelmed. The court adjourned briefly to permit him to compose himself. But when the session resumed, Nel's insistent questions did, too, despite objections from the defense that the prosecutor was repeatedly going over old ground.
Why had Pistorius not warned the intruders that he was armed, he asked. "You were armed but you never said you were armed," Nel said.
Pistorius replied that he had not wanted them to know.
Why, then, had he fired, Nel asked.
Pistorius said he had heard a sound like "wood moving," perhaps when a door was opened or a magazine rack inside the cubicle was moved. "I wasn't thinking," he said. "I was screaming to the person or persons to get out."
"You never gave them the chance," Nel responded. "You said to them to get out, then never gave them the chance to do it."
"I fired in quick succession," Pistorius said. "I discharged my firearm as quickly as I could."
So "why did you only fire four rounds," Nel asked. "Why not empty the magazine?"
Was it just by luck, then, that the gun was pointed at Steenkamp, Nel asked.
"How could that be lucky?" Pistorius said, choking up. "She lost her life."
"Mr. Pistorius, you are trying to get emotional again," Nel said, suggesting that the court adjourn for lunch.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service