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Oscar Pistorius trial: defence rests case

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Alan Cowell

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Pistorius defence team closes case

The defence team for Oscar Pistorius closed its case in the athlete's murder trial on Tuesday, bringing a legal case that has transfixed South Africans and others around the world closer to a verdict.

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He has sobbed, retched and wailed. His testimony has been punctuated by cries of grief and met with accusations of mendacity. Before the High Court in Pretoria, the South African capital, Oscar Pistorius has been depicted variously as anguished and remorseful, egotistic, enamoured of guns and filled with rage that propelled him to kill his girlfriend last year.

But on Tuesday, his stop-start murder trial - televised around the world - took a decisive step closer to the moment when Judge Thokozile Masipa will offer her judgment on which portrayal of Pistorius she believes is real.

Defence lawyers for Oscar Pistorius have rested their case.

Defence lawyers for Oscar Pistorius have rested their case. Photo: AFP

On the 39th day of hearings since the trial, which was supposed to last only three weeks, opened in March, defence lawyers rested their case. Judge Masipa adjourned until August 7 the hearings  for both sides to make their final oral arguments. A verdict could be in before the end of August.

But even as the trial nudged toward its closing stages after testimony from almost 40 witnesses, double-amputee athletic star Pistorius, 27, was again depicted as a man of contradictions, torn between supreme achievement on the track and a profound sense of private vulnerability away from it.

"Although he loathes to be pitied in any way," Professor Wayne Derman, a leading South African sports physician, said of Pistorius, "the hard truth is that he does not have lower legs."

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel in the Pretoria High Court.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel in the Pretoria High Court. Photo: Getty Images

Professor Derman, who worked with the runner for several years, including at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, said, "You've got a paradox - of an individual who is supremely able and an individual who is significantly disabled."

The defence argues that Pistorius' condition left him hyper-alert to any perceived threat - a factor, his lawyers argue, in his behaviour in the early hours of February 14, 2013, when he has admitted shooting to death his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law school graduate. The prosecution says he killed her in a jealous rage, but Pistorius says he shot her by mistake in the belief that an intruder had entered his home.

"This is the night I lost the person I most cared about," he said, sobbing, in one exchange when he took the stand for five days of gruelling cross-examination in April. "I don't know how people don't understand that."

Oscar Pistorius with his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in January 2013.

Oscar Pistorius with his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in January 2013. Photo: AFP

But the lead prosecutor, Gerrie Nel was not moved by such protestations. He called Pistorius a liar, saying at one point that his version of events was "so improbable that it cannot possibly be true." At another moment in cross-examination, Mr Nel accused Pistorius of manufacturing his distress, saying he was "trying to get emotional again".

As the defence began closing its case, Mr Nel returned to the attack, assailing the credibility of Professor Derman's testimony and telling him: "You are not objective in your evidence before court. You do not want to give an answer that will not benefit the accused."

Professor Derman responded, "I do not believe that I am biased."

Defence lawyer Barry Roux.

Defence lawyer Barry Roux. Photo: AP

The final days of the defence case were overshadowed on some social media sites by leaked images, shown on Channel Seven in Australia , of Pistorius re-enacting his movements between his bedroom and a locked bathroom door on the night of the killing. The defence says the video was filmed as part of preparations for its case, was never meant to be broadcast and was obtained illegally - a charge Channel Seven denied.

Because there is no jury trial in South Africa, Judge Masipa will consider her judgment with the help of two assessors. The charge of premeditated murder carries a mandatory minimum term of 25 years.

The defence seemed on Tuesday to be laying the groundwork for a possible appeal if Pistorius is convicted. Defence lawyer Barry Roux said several potential witnesses for the defence had not been willing to testify because they "did not want their voices heard around the world."

Reporters in the courtroom said that was possibly a precursor to an appeal on the grounds that television coverage - highly unusual in South African courts - had jeopardised the fairness of the trial by deterring witnesses. While witnesses were allowed to request that they not be shown on television while testifying, audio transmission has continued throughout the hearings.

New York Times

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