The prosecutor in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius unleashed a fury of blistering accusations and biting questions during cross-examination last week, leaving the South African superstar fumbling, trembling and crying on the witness stand.
The state's lawyer, Gerrie Nel, ripped into apparent inconsistencies and contradictions in the former Olympic athlete's testimony, relentlessly hammering him with questions aimed to prove Pistorius intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, after a heated argument in the early hours of Valentine's Day last year.
But the star sprinter's defense team now has its chance to rebut the state's accusations and try to reverse any decisive impact Nel may have had on the judge, Thokozile Masipa, who will deliver a verdict because South Africa doesn't have a jury system. The defense plans to call several expert witnesses before the trial concludes.
And yet the defense team, led by chief lawyer Barry Roux, still faces an uphill battle to cast doubt on the prosecutor’s version of events, legal experts said.
Credibility in question
"The defendant did himself more harm than good" during the cross-examination, said NBC legal expert and former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, adding that Pistorius' "inconsistencies and lack of persuasiveness" in his responses to Nel's barbed questions may have irrevocably undermined his credibility.
Pistorius last week took the stand for the first time since the trial began March 3 to testify about the circumstances surrounding Steenkamp's killing in his house. Pistorius, 27, claims he shot the 29-year-old model and law graduate through a closed bathroom door after mistaking her for an intruder.
But in his unsparing barrage of questions, Nel attempted to reveal what he said were conflicts in Pistorius' story and prove that the athlete shot his girlfriend intentionally on Feb. 14, 2013.
The prosecutor, nicknamed the "Pit Bull," finished off his cross-examination Friday by saying that Pistorius' version of events was “not only untruthful but it’s so improbable that it cannot reasonable."
He added: “You armed yourself with the sole purpose of shooting and killing her.”
Analysts speculate that while the defense has yet to rest its case, Nel may have moved the needle and put Pistorius at even greater risk of being found guilty of premeditated murder, which carries a penalty of 25 years to life in prison.
"I think that this prosecutor had a plan to wear him down through relentless and protracted argumentative cross-examination to get him confused and get him to contradict himself," said attorney Tom Mesereau, who has represented a range of high-profile clients, including Michael Jackson. "He wanted to burn his position into the judge's conscious and subconsciousness mind."
NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom said that in addition to casting doubt on Pistorius' testimony and "supporting the state's theory that he's lying," Nel also "got a few shots in at Pistorius' weepiness." The athlete, over the course of his trial, has broken down in tears, retched and vomited.
"He has cried more than any defendant in any case I've ever seen," Bloom said. "It's clearly over-the-top and it's consistent with the state's theory that he's trying to escape what he did. It comes across as self-pitying and out of control."
At one point during the cross-examination, Nel asked Pistorius why he was getting so "emotional" as the athlete wept.
Mesereau said that Nel may have "planned to make (Pistorius') sobbing and crying look absurd, because he's doing it day after day."
He added: "Will the judge believe that you can cry and sob that often?"
Mesereau speculated that Pistorius' "emotion, his sobbing, his crying (and) his wailing may not have a great effect on this judge."
"I think she'll stick to the facts and the law that's applied to those facts," Mesereau said.
The trial is expected to run another month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
First published April 15 2014, 6:59 PM