Pistorius Trial

Will Pistorius' Testimony Help or Hurt? Trial Questions Answered

Image: Oscar Pistorius attends his trial at the high court in Pretoria

Oscar Pistorius attends his trial at the high court in Pretoria April 7, 2014. South African Olympic and Paralympic track star Pistorius took the witness stand in his own defense at his murder trial on Monday, saying the shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp had left him sleepless, terrified and plagued by nightmares. Themba Hadebe / Pool via Reuters

Oscar Pistorius shocked the world this week with an emotional two-day testimony that recounted — in his own words for the first time — the night he killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius, whose steel will and perseverance made him an international sports hero, broke down on the stand, at times sobbing uncontrollably.

“I was screaming and shouting the whole time. I don’t think I’ve ever screamed liked that. I was crying out for the Lord to help me,” he said in court.

So overcome with tears as he described what he saw the day of Steenkamp's death that the judge adjourned the trial for the day.

But is Pistorius' time in the courtroom spotlight bolstering his defense or hurting his bid for acquittal? Here are five crucial questions that have emerged after two days of Pistorius testimony.

Why did defense lawyers put Pistorius on the stand?

This week marks the first time that Pistorius, 27, has spoken publicly about the fatal Valentine’s Day 2013 shooting of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29, at his home in Pretoria, South Africa. He pleaded not guilty at the start of the trial on the grounds that he mistakenly assumed Steenkamp was an intruder, but his account of what happened that night has only been told through defense lawyers so far.

“I wasn’t sure if someone was going to come out the toilet and attack me,” Pistorius said on the stand Tuesday, adding that “before I knew it, I had fired four shots at the door.”

Having a murder defendant take the stand is risky: In many other high-profile murder trials, such as Casey Anthony’s and George Zimmerman’s, defense lawyers have opted not to have their clients speak on their own behalf.


But in Pistorius' case, because of his claim that he believed he was shooting an intruder, it may have been necessary, said William Booth, a Cape Town, South Africa, attorney specializing in criminal cases.

"Having raised that as a defense, that specifically, I believe required that he go and testify," Booth said. "If he didn't testify, all that there would have been was the version of the state witnesses, where at least four of them — the neighbors — were under the impression that there was shouting, then shots. And that could have indicated to the court that there was an argument and that this was a case of murder and not self-defense."

Will Pistorius' outward display of emotions help or hurt him?

Pistorius hasn’t held back his feelings while he’s been in court: He was seen wiping away tears early in the trial as he listened to details about Steenkamp’s bullet wounds, the first of many times he’s been seen crying in court. He has also thrown up numerous times in court, overcome by evidence photos of his dead girlfriend’s body.

When he took the stand for the second day on Tuesday, he sobbed uncontrollably as he described the moment he had killed Steenkamp — to the point where the trial was adjourned for the rest of the afternoon because of his crying.

All that emotion has had some in South Africa wondering if he's acting, Booth said.

"Some people are saying it's just Oscar trying to get an Oscar. But it might very well be genuine. Even if he did intentionally shoot Reeva, he might still be regretting it and reacting like this. Or if it was an accident, one could understand that he's extremely remorseful and that is why he is having these emotional breakdowns."


But, Booth cautioned, whether it's real or not, this much grief can't continue to be exhibited in court.

"The court could say, maybe you need to go for some specialist's help. Get a psychologist to help you. The judge could say that or the defense could say he's not emotionally well, he needs to be given another week or so [before he finishes testifying]," he said.

Giving evidence to the court while overcome with feelings could even affect whether he is guaranteed a fair trial.

"If you've given evidence in an emotional state, and that evidence is going to be cross-examined, you could start answering in a certain way just to get rid of the questions," Booth said.

The display of emotion could have an effect on the sentence Pistorius gets, attorney Tom Mesereau, who has represented a range of high-profile clients, including Michael Jackson, said Tuesday on MSNBC's "Ronan Farrow Daily."


"It may affect sentence because someone who is remorseful, who has committed a crime, can sometimes affect a judge," he said. "But when it comes to judging guilt or innocence, I don't think the emotion is going to have nearly the effect that a lot of people think it's going to have."

Why did Pistorius re-enact the position he was in when he fired the fatal shots?

The bullet-ridden bathroom door through which Pistorius shot Steenkamp is in the courtroom as an exhibit. On Tuesday, Pistorius changed out of his suit and tie and put on a T-shirt and shorts — similar to what he was wearing the night of the shooting — and walked from the witness box up to the bathroom door. Defense lawyer Barry Roux then asked him to take off his prosthetic legs, so Pistorius could be seen standing on his stumps in front of the door, before he put his legs back on and returned to the witness box.

On the night of the shooting, Pistorius grabbed a 9 mm pistol under his bed and made his way down the passageway from the bedroom toward the bathroom. The purpose of the partial re-enactment in court was to emphasize how Pistorius felt in crime-filled South Africa, where home intruders are common.

"This whole approach [from the defense] that Pistorius was vulnerable, he felt stricken, he had this phobia about crime — he needs to get across what he was feeling, why he was feeling that," Booth said. "It's to show the court the position he was in: 'I was on my stumps. I felt vulnerable because i have a disability, and even more so because all this stuff was going around in my head.'"

Mesereau agreed.

Displaying Pistorius' disability in court shows "his willingness to strike first before someone gets close to him because he's at a tremendous disadvantage if he gets into any type of grappling match with an intruder," he said.

It's critical to the double-amputee's self-defense claim, but the fact that he fired four shots through the door at Steenkamp may be too much for his attorneys to overcome.

"If it was one shot, I don't think there would be a problem with an acquittal," Booth said.

What does the prosecution need to address in its cross-examination?

As the trial continues this week, the prosecution will have a chance to cross-examine Pistorius — an opportunity for the state to point out that regardless of what Pistorius thought was happening that night, he took it a step too far.

"He exceeded the bounds of what he was entitled to in our law, and even if he didn't think it was Reeva, he could still be guilty of murder," Booth said.

They'll also need to hammer home some of the other testimony about Pistorius: that he's an aggressive person who uses firearms (sometimes irrationally) and that he loses his temper and is a jealous man.


How much prison time does Pistorius face?

If he's convicted of murder, he faces a minimum of 15 to 25 years. If he's found guilty of premeditated murder, he faces life — an unlikely scenario in Pistorius' case, Booth said, since prosecutors have been arguing that an argument prompted the killing, as opposed to it being something that was planned in advance.

If he's convicted of a lesser charge — probable homicide or manslaughter, the negligent killing of somebody — he could get even less (or no) prison time, or he simply get get fines, community sentences, or correctional supervision.

What count he gets charged with depends on what the judge considers to be "reasonable" in Pistorius' situation.

"What would a reasonable man in those circumstances have done? Would he have fired four shots, would he have fired a warning shot, would he have called the police, would he have run away?" Booth said. "Even if they find that he didn't know it was Reeva but thought it was an intruder, it could be murder of an intruder."