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PRETORIA, South Africa – In closing arguments in a murder trial that has riveted South Africa and many around the world, the chief prosecutor said Thursday that Olympian Oscar Pistorius dropped "the baton of truth" and produced a succession of lies to save himself from a conviction for shooting to death his girlfriend.
Likening the sensational trial to the sport that made the double-amputee runner world-famous, Gerrie Nel said Pistorius had lost this race and urged the judge to convict him of premeditated murder for killing Reeva Steenkamp. The charge carries a sentence of at least 25 years and up to life in prison.
Nel said Pistorius' explanation that he acted out of fear there was a dangerous intruder hiding in a toilet cubicle in his bathroom was "absolutely devoid of any truth." Nel criticized Pistorius in the Pretoria courtroom, saying he was an "appalling witness" ready to lie at every chance to cover up a murder. The chief prosecutor spoke for nearly five hours, using the 109-page written argument the prosecution submitted to the court last week.
Chief defense lawyer Barry Roux listened and checked files as Nel spoke. Judge Thokozile Masipa occasionally questioned Nel, and urged him at one point to speed up. At the start of closing arguments, she had warned the lawyers they had only until the end of Friday to complete them in court.
"Unless, of course, you want to work on a Saturday and perhaps Sunday, after church," she said, smiling.
The defense repeated its claim that police had tampered with crucial evidence at the scene, but Roux had only started his final arguments when Judge Masipa postponed proceedings until Friday for the defense to finish.
That day is scheduled to be the 41st and final day of proceedings before Masipa adjourns to consider a verdict with her two legal assessors, five months after the trial opened. South Africa has no trial by jury and there are no limits on how long Masipa may take to reach her judgment.
Pistorius could also be convicted of a lesser murder charge or negligent killing, both of which call for years in jail. The judge could acquit him if she believes he only made a tragic error.
Nel argued that Masipa should still convict Pistorius of murder, even if she accepts his story that he didn't know it was Steenkamp behind the door. Either way, Pistorius armed himself with his 9 mm pistol on Feb. 14, 2013 and shot four times with the intention to kill someone and with no reason to believe his life was in danger, Nel said.
Pistorius sat behind Nel, occasionally looking through documents and appearing calm, in contrast to some past occasions during which he retched and wailed in apparent distress. For the first time in the trial, Pistorius' father, Henke, and Steenkamp's father Barry were in the courtroom, sitting at opposite ends of a long bench in the gallery.
Pistorius denies murder and claimed he thought Steenkamp was an intruder about to come out of the cubicle and attack him when he shot, hitting the model in the head, arm and hip.
Nel said that Pistorius' lawyers were now claiming two defenses and he criticized them for floating more than one theory about what happened shortly after 3 a.m. on the night. Defense lawyers had argued that Pistorius fired intentionally in self-defense, Nel said, but they also say he was not criminally responsible and accidentally fired because he was "startled" by a noise.
"It's two defenses that you can never reconcile," Nel said.
Throughout his argument, the prosecutor dismissed Pistorius' entire story as a "mosaic" of lies that he had to keep adding to keep the picture "intact." Nel said Pistorius' contention that minutes before the shooting he was bringing in fans from a balcony and therefore did not see Steenkamp getting out of bed was one of many lies. The fans photographed at the scene were not where Pistorius said they were and Nel concluded Pistorius had to make that part up to explain why he didn't know it was Steenkamp in the bathroom.
"He had to put himself in the bedroom ... He had to create time for the deceased to get to the toilet," Nel said.
Ending his closing argument, Nel said Pistorius was guilty of premeditated murder because in the midst of an argument, he "made up his mind" to find his gun, walk through to the bathroom and shoot.
"That, my lady, is pre-planning," Nel said to the judge.
Defense lawyer Roux spoke for around 30 minutes, addressing the police force's handling of the scene and explaining why the fans and other objects in the bedroom were not where Pistorius said they were at the time of the shooting.
"We're not talking about a conspiracy," Roux said, calling it unintentional tampering.
Imray reported from Stellenbosch, South Africa.