Belfast Telegraph

Friday 28 November 2014

Oscar Pistorius truly bitten by 'king of slow poison' Gerrie Nel

BY COURT ORDER, THESE IMAGES ARE FREE TO USE. PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 14: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): State prosecutor Gerrie Nel questions Oscar Pistorius during cross examination in the Pretoria High Court on April 14, 2014, in Pretoria, South Africa. Oscar Pistorius stands accused of the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on February 14, 2013. This is Pistorius' official trial, the result of which will determine the paralympian athlete's fate.  (Photo by Antoine de Ras/Independent Newspapers/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
BY COURT ORDER, THESE IMAGES ARE FREE TO USE. PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 14: (SOUTH AFRICA OUT): State prosecutor Gerrie Nel questions Oscar Pistorius during cross examination in the Pretoria High Court on April 14, 2014, in Pretoria, South Africa. Oscar Pistorius stands accused of the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on February 14, 2013. This is Pistorius' official trial, the result of which will determine the paralympian athlete's fate. (Photo by Antoine de Ras/Independent Newspapers/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Be your opinions of Gerrie Nel what they may, there are few among us who can now doubt the South African State Prosecutor's ability to cross-examine.

Over the space of five days Oscar Pistorius was subjected to Nel's brittle and often brutal style of questioning as he attempted to discredit the famous sprinter's account of what happened the night he took Reeva Steenkamp's life.

In the first few days of cross-examination Nel extracted as much information from Pistorius as he possibly could and then he proceeded to test the improbability of that information with such methodical precision that, in the minds of many, he rendered the accused's version so unbelievable that it could not possibly have happened.

Nel is known in legal circles in South Africa as "the king of slow poison" – and for good reason. As a cross-examiner, he is relentless. He tends to get personal with his opponents and has an uncanny way of pushing them into an emotional state. It is an approach that has worked well for him over a number of years in a string of high-profile trials.

Pistorius came forewarned, however, and when he took the stand the first thing he did – during his evidence-in-chief – was to engage in a very emotional and very public apology to the Steenkamp family. That was followed by a pitiful account of his emotional state, when he told the court that he was a broken man.

But Nel parked all of that and, within moments of his cross-examination getting under way, he presented the accused with a graphic image of the head injury that led to Steenkamp's death, telling him to take responsibility for his actions instead of playing to the gallery.

It was downhill for Pistorius after that. In the days that followed he exercised selective memory. He was evasive. He was incapable of giving a direct answer. His constant tears did little to win him favour.

Pistorius tripped himself up repeatedly as he contradicted details that he had meticulously laid out in his bail application some 14 months before.

By the time he returned to the dock on Wednesday Pistorius was every bit the fallen hero. Nel, on the other hand, could do no wrong in the eyes of a public – local and international – that only a few weeks ago held a very different view.

The country's criminal justice system is under heavy scrutiny by a media that is beaming this trial live into homes all over the country and around the world.

Commentators are quick to assert that it is not just Pistorius who is on trial here, while the cynics among them are – or at least were – of the view that the State would be no match for the top legal brass that the athlete has bought to defend himself.

Nel's performance in the past few days has evidently challenged that view, but that doesn't make it any more meaningful, as it is most certainly not the criminal justice system that is on trial here, but a very rich individual who was so famous in the eyes of the world and whose life took such a tragic twist.

It was deemed critical that his murder trial would be covered for the whole world to see, so that it could feed the human appetite for such stories.

Under such a glare it is hardly surprising that the justice system, at least those who are representing it in courtroom GD of the North Gauteng High Court, is putting on such an excellent performance.

It is also no surprise that this case is generating a phenomenal amount of commentary from South Africa's legal fraternity, the members of which provide insightful analysis by the hour each day this court sits.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, because of all of that, Pistorius will get a very fair trial – whatever the outcome may be.

But this trial is not representative of a justice system that is generally crumbling, if not already broken. To suggest that it is, is not only naive and incorrect, but also a crude insult to the many prisoners awaiting trial and the thousands of men and women languishing in horrid conditions in prisons all over the country as victims of over-worked, State-funded lawyers who do not have the luxury of going the extra mile that Pistorius has been able to buy.

All credit to Nel, but a nod, please, to the reality he represents every other day this court does not sit.

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