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Pistorius Trial

How 'Pit Bull' Lawyer Gerrie Nel Is Tearing Pistorius Apart

Image: State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel speaks during the Oscar Pistorius trial

State Prosecutor Gerrie Nel speaks during the Oscar Pistorius trial at North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, on March 19, 2014. THEMBA HADEBE / Pool via EPA

With nicknames such as “Bulldog” and “Pit Bull” it shouldn’t be surprising that prosecution lawyer Gerrie Nel launched his cross-examination of Oscar Pistorius with a ferocious and tenacious attack.

The state’s lawyer tore into the Olympian for a second blistering day Thursday, questioning the double amputee’s character, doubting his honesty and portraying his testimony as implausible.

Pistorius admits fatally shooting his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, but denies the charge of murder.

With no direct witnesses to the shooting, Nel's main task is to pick apart the athlete’s claims that he believed a burglar was in his house when he fired the shots through a bathroom door that killed her.

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His questions have been merciless, his approach unbowed by Pistorius’ sobs of anguish from the witness box.

“He’s definitely the best prosecutor in South Africa, he’s proved that, and I think he will continue to prove that,” said South African criminal defense attorney Ulrich Roux. “He is a very seasoned guy, he is a very good cross-examiner, he has a good reputation. A very aggressive cross-examiner tends to get good results in court.”

At times resting his foot on an empty chair, Nel has given an assured performance, throwing a wrecked and often evasive Pistorius into sharp relief.

"You will blame anybody but yourself," Nel said to the 27-year-old on Thursday. "You are lying. You just refuse to take responsibility for anything."

The New Age newspaper in South Africa featured a cartoon depicting Oscar Pistorius and state prosecutor Gerrie "The Bulldog" Nel.NBC News

The veteran prosecutor, whose celebrated cases include the successful 1993 conviction of the killer of anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani, has employed a number of proven tactics in his approach to this trial.

Shock and awe

There was no stealth attack on Pistorius when the cross-examination began Wednesday: Nel ripped into the athlete within seconds, demanding that he admit he killed Reeva in his own words.

“You killed Reeva Steenkamp,” Nel demanded. “Say it.”

“I made a terrible mistake,” the athlete said.

"You killed a person," Nel added.

"I made a mistake," Pistorius replied.

"Will you take responsibility for it? Say it. Say, 'Yes, I killed ... I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp,'" Nel said.

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From that moment there was no doubting who had the upper hand.

There were gasps in court as Nel showed the courtroom a view of the gunshot wounds to Steenkamp's head, with a mass of blood and human tissue on the back and upper parts. He insisted the Olympian look at the picture.

Pistorius sobbed angrily in response: "I have been waiting for my time on this stand to tell my story. I remember. I don’t have to look at a picture. I was there.”

That brutal approach continued on Thursday, as Nel demolished Pistorius’ dramatic courtroom apology to Reeva’s parents, accusing him of creating “a spectacle.” Why didn’t he simply apologize in person? “You weren't humble enough to do that,” Nel said.

Relentless questioning

Like a spider building a web, Nel has started with single – and sometimes seemingly tangential – lines of inquiry, only to join the threads together to make a trap.

“He likes to rattle witnesses – to emotionally rattle them to see if he can get them to give him contradicting versions. That is his style,” said Roux.

Asked about the moment he awoke in the night – the precursor to the fatal shooting – Pistorius said the bedroom was humid and he got up to bring some fans in from the balcony and close the curtains.

“You could see Reeva?” Nel asked.

“I didn't look at the bed, I walked with my hand out onto the balcony,” Pistorius replied, adding that closing the curtains made the room “pitch dark.”

After almost 20 minutes’ further questioning, Nel asked why the athlete had needed to move the duvet on the bed.

“To rotate,” Pistorius said. “I got out of the bed on the left hand side. I could see the duvet going up.”

“You know Oscar Pistorius, you're adapting. Because when I asked you first, you said I didn't see. You said my face was in my hands. You’re adapting your version.”

In switching back and forth between emotional intensity and minute detail, Nel has caused Pistorius to react at times with sobs of anguish and at other times with indignation and pique. It’s an uneasy juxtaposition, and Nel may be seeking to portray the athlete as calculating rather than vulnerable.

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Forcing errors

In asking repeated questions about every detail, Nel has twice succeeded in exposing Pistorius’ failure to provide a direct answer.

“You're arguing not answering,” Nel said after one long answer Wednesday.

“I'm sorry,” Pistorius said.

“The sorry does not answer the question of ‘why.’ Sorry is not an answer to why.”

Asking the athlete to account for variations in his testimony, Nel said that minor details were in fact “not so insignificant,” adding: “It will show that you are lying.”

“I’m under a lot of pressure sitting here,” the athlete responded.

Preparation

Methodical and tenacious, Nel is known to arrive at court two hours before the day begins – and his thorough knowledge of the evidence has given him a courtroom advantage.

Asserting that Pistorius was sometimes mean to Steenkamp, Nel mentioned her objection to the athlete playing a song by American rapper Kendrick Lamar on a car stereo.

Pistorius referred to the song in a cellphone message to Steenkamp that acknowledged her objections and has been included as evidence in the trial.

The prosecutor asked if the name of the song was "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," but Pistorius said he couldn't remember the specific song.

Nel responded that Steenkamp would have been right to take offense, but "we can't ask her."

A phone message from Steenkamp to Pistorius then was shown in court that included the line: "You make me happy 90 percent of the time and I think we are amazing together but I am not some other bitch you may know trying to kill your vibe."

Pistorius admitted: “It wasn't a nice song and I take responsibility for that.”

However, there have been some missteps. Nel was rebuked by the judge Thursday for laughing out loud at one of Pistorius’ answers.

“You might think this is entertainment,” Judge Thokozile Masipa admonished. “It is not.”

It is also possible that Nel’s tactic relentless questioning could backfire. There is no jury in this trial, and thus no advantage in scoring points over the defendant - unless it produces facts material to the case.

Nel “mustn’t come out with this aggressive approach at all times,” Roux said. “The function of cross-examination is to test a person’s version, to test whether that person is telling the truth. So just bombarding them and getting them to break down … Are you really getting the answers out of the person that you want to?”

The trial continues.

Ashleigh Hamilton Moore contributed to this report.