PRETORIA, South Africa — Prosecutor Gerrie Nel launched an aggressive cross examination Wednesday of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius, on trial for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Nel pounced when Pistorius admitted that people around the world used to look up to him as a sporting hero until he “made a mistake.”
“You made a mistake? You killed a person. You killed Reeva Steenkamp, that’s what you did,” Nel barked. “You killed her. Won’t you take responsibility for that?”
Under the prosecutor’s tough approach, the athlete again broke down in tears, forcing another of many adjournments due to Pistorius’ fragile emotional state.
The defense condemned Nel’s line of questioning as an “ambush.”
At one point, Nel asked Pistorius if he knew what a “zombie stopper” was. The athlete denied any knowledge of the term. But, after legal argument, the court saw a video in which Pistorius at a shooting range fired a handgun at a watermelon, which exploded. He then said in the video, “It’s not as soft as brains,” then cursed and added, “but it’s a zombie stopper” to raucous cheering around him.
“You know that the same happened to Reeva’s head. It exploded,” Nel said aggressively, telling the athlete to take a look at a photograph of Steenkamp’s head after being shot. People in the public gallery gasped as the photograph was shown, and Pistorius again broke down, covering his face with his hands and saying the image would torment him.
Pistorius said he didn’t need to see the photo because he had been there. “As I picked Reeva up, my fingers touched her head,” Pistorius said as he wept.
“It’s time that you look at it. Take responsibility for what you’ve done,” Nel said.
Defense attorney Barry Roux protested that the line of questioning comparing the exploding watermelon with Steenkamp’s head was unfair. Judge Thokozile Masipa agreed.
Steenkamp’s mother, June, had been warned the photograph would be shown and wanted him to see the picture, according to prosecutors.
Nel’s cross-examination foreshadowed more focus on Pistorius’ character to counter the athlete’s previous testimony in which he portrayed himself as a God-fearing Good Samaritan who rescued a puppy, helped charities, intervened to help assault victims under attack and was “besotted” with Steenkamp.
Nel also pointed out contradictions between Pistorius’ bail statement and his court testimony.
Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder, claiming he shot Steenkamp under the belief that she was an intruder and that he and she were in danger. He fired four shots using expanding bullets through the toilet door, where Steenkamp had locked herself.
“I did not intend to kill Reeva or anybody else for that matter,” Pistorius told Pretoria’s High Court Wednesday.
[Updated 8:23 a.m. PDT April 9: He said that he was frightened when he shot at the door, but did not answer Nel’s “yes or no” questions about whether the gun discharged accidentally or whether he thought his only way to save his life was to shoot.
“I wasn’t meaning to shoot anyone. I didn’t have much time to think,” Pistorius said. “When I heard the noise inside the toilet, before thinking, I fired four shots.”
The athlete contradicted himself on where a fan was plugged in in his bedroom, but dismissed the issue as “something insignificant.” “It will show that you are lying,” Nel said, “and it’s very significant.”]
Pistorius’ defense lawyer, Roux, sought to undermine a key part of the state’s case -- five witnesses who testified they heard a woman scream the night of the shooting. Pistorius claims he was the only one who screamed. Some neighbors testified they heard a woman’s screams, mingled with a man shouting for help.
Roux listed several neighbors in close proximity to the Pistorius house who he said heard crying the night of the killing, but not female screams.
Pistorius also performed a demonstration in court of how he hit the door with the cricket bat, wearing his prosthetic legs, to indicate he could hit the bat at the same level of the marks the cricket bat left on the door. The state’s case is that he must have been on his stumps when he hit the door.
“I can barely stand in my stumps let alone yield a bat,” the athlete told the court.
Pistorius also said that when a neighbor, Dr. Johan Stipp, testified to hearing several sounds that he thought were gunshots, after seeing a man moving in Pistorius’ bathroom, he must have heard the sound of the athlete breaking down the toilet door with a cricket bat.
Pistorius fired the shots about five minutes before he broke down the door, he said.
Pistorius testified he hit the door as hard as he could. “I used my entire body,” he said. “I hit the door with all my might, my lady,” he said, addressing Judge Masipa.
Nel asked Pistorius about his Christian principles, and whether he intended to hide details of what happened. Pistorius told the court that the truth was important.
“I’m human. I made many faults. I have sins. I don’t always think the things I do are right,” he said.
Asked by Nel whether he would tell the truth in court, the athlete replied, “I’ll try not to lie my lady.”