JOHANNESBURG – Prosecutors at Oscar Pistorius' murder trial have presented a "golden thread" of evidence suggesting Reeva Steenkamp screamed before she died, leaving the double-amputee athlete with "serious questions" to answer and his defense likely hinging on his own testimony, a legal expert in South Africa said.
Three neighbors say they heard a woman scream before and during the deadly gunshots coming from Pistorius' home in the early hours of Valentine's Day last year. The pathologist who performed the autopsy on Steenkamp's body said it would have been "abnormal" for her not to scream from some of her injuries.
A police ballistics expert concluded that the first shot Pistorius fired through a toilet door hit Steenkamp in the hip and caused her to collapse, but didn't immediately kill her. The second shot missed. From the policeman's testimony, Steenkamp likely had time to yell out before she was hit by two more shots as she covered her head with her arms in a desperate attempt to protect herself.
"Suddenly what we have is Oscar Pistorius firing at Reeva Steenkamp while her hands are covering her head while she's screaming in the toilet, and that's murder," said Marius du Toit, a defense lawyer and former state prosecutor who says he has worked on at least 100 murder cases.
Du Toit, who is following the trial but not involved, said the prosecution has "definitely" made a case for murder against the Olympic runner for the fatal shooting of Steenkamp, and Pistorius' defense must now respond.
Chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel has so far presented a specific line of evidence compellingly, du Toit said. Using the accounts of neighbors and backing them up with the expert opinion of pathologist Gert Saayman and police ballistics investigator Capt. Christiaan Mangena, Nel may have shown to the court that it was "reasonable" that Steenkamp screamed during the four shots fired at her, du Toit said.
"There's definitely a golden thread here," du Toit told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "A golden thread of someone who was screaming and who was shot. The objective facts, which are the injuries she sustained, coupled with the expert opinion, tied with your circumstantial evidence presented by witnesses. And if that ties up with one another then Oscar has got a major problem."
Prosecutors say they will wrap up their case next week, the fourth week of the trial, by calling four or five more witnesses. High court authorities in Gauteng province said in a statement Sunday that the trial will be halted for the week beginning April 7, and then resume from April 14 until May 16.
Pistorius, 27, was a celebrated track athlete who made history as the first amputee to run against able bodied runners at the Olympics after having his lower legs amputated as a baby because of a congenital condition. He now faces going to prison for 25 years to life if convicted of premeditated murder. If found guilty of murder without premeditation for killing Steenkamp, who was 29, Pistorius faces a minimum 15-year sentence.
Pistorius says he shot Steenkamp by mistake believing she was an intruder in his home and has maintained throughout that he was the only person to scream, partly after realizing his tragic error.
In a court case being broadcast live on television to millions and followed by over 100 reporters at the Pretoria courthouse, Pistorius' chief defense lawyer, Barry Roux, has attracted attention for his cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, and his consistent criticism of an apparently flawed police investigation into the shooting in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 14, 2013.
Du Toit identified two areas he believes will be crucial to Pistorius' defense: The world-famous runner's own testimony and evidence given by the defense's forensic and ballistics experts.
Defense lawyer Roux has made it clear that Pistorius' experts will offer another version regarding the shots that killed Steenkamp, arguing that Pistorius fired with "double-tap" bursts that gave Steenkamp no time to scream, and so Pistorius did not realize he was shooting at Steenkamp.
Du Toit also noted that police experts did not test if parts of Pistorius' story were plausible.
"So all they (the defense) have to do is say, `well you never bothered so we tested it and this is what we found," du Toit said.
But, ultimately, Pistorius has admitted killing Steenkamp and he is expected to explain his decision to fire four times into a small cubicle from close range. That will open him up to cross-examination by the prosecution.
"The only question is whether there was intent and intent is subjective," du Toit said. "That means the accused must come and dispel that. Oscar (testifying) is definitely going to be the key, but I wonder if it's going to be good for him."