Oscar Pistorius

Gerrie Nel's relentless interrogation of Oscar Pistorius symbolic of his career

Gerrie Nel's relentless, no-holds-barred interrogation of Oscar Pistorius emblematic of a career in which he has been known to go for the jugular

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:39am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:39am

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel fired another tough question at murder suspect Oscar Pistorius.

"Are you sure, Mr Pistorius, that Reeva did not scream after you fired the first shot?" asked Nel.

The athlete, who earlier said he was tired and struggling under the relentless interrogation, leaned back in the witness box and remained silent.

The wood-lined courtroom in South Africa was hushed and expectant. Was Pistorius thinking through an answer, or was he on the verge of an emotional outburst, or was he reflecting on his predicament and Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend he killed in his home last year?

After a tense pause, the Olympic athlete said he wished Steenkamp had let him know she was in the toilet cubicle where he shot her - by mistake, according to his account. He said she did not scream, but also that his ears were ringing with effects of the gunshot and he would not have heard screams.

[Gerrie Nel's] got points to make and he makes them. He's not shy
A legal source

Pistorius often seemed worn down as the caustic prosecutor picked holes in parts of his story. The dramatic cross-examination has drawn attention to Nel, a prominent state prosecutor dubbed "pit bull" in local media and on social networks for his combative, often effective style.

One of the highlights of his career came in 2010 when he secured the conviction on corruption charges of Jackie Selebi, a former national police commissioner and the ex-president of Interpol. Now Nel's international profile has ascended further after five days of challenging and even ridiculing the claim made by Pistorius, 27, that he accidentally killed Steenkamp, 29, by firing through a closed toilet door, mistaking her for an intruder in his house before dawn on February 14 of last year.

The prosecution says the double-amputee runner is lying and that he killed his girlfriend after they had an argument during which she fled into the toilet cubicle to seek refuge.

Nel's no-holds-barred approach has earned him a fan base, with some South Africans joking that they would like him to negotiate their lobola, a dowry traditionally paid in cattle. "Death Nel for Oscar?" asked one headline.

A radio station made a parody rap song about defence lawyer Barry Roux, and now Nel has one too ("They call me Gerrie Nel/And I am mad as hell.")

In The Times, a South African newspaper, cartoonist Zapiro depicted Nel as a bullet, his head on the tip, speeding towards an alarmed Pistorius.

He has a gentler side, according to Rapport newspaper. It reported that in his personal time, Nel often teaches young children how to wrestle and that he is patient and never loses his temper when coaching the students.

Pistorius' murder trial is being broadcast on television. While Pistorius was not shown on the screen during his testimony, viewers watched Nel browbeat the once globally admired figure who reached an athletic pinnacle when he ran in the London Olympics in 2012.

[Pistorius] suddenly went on his own ... I think it's a desperate man
Criminal lawyer William Booth

Pistorius, who has been free on bail for the last year, could be jailed for 25 years to life if convicted of premeditated murder, and also faces three separate gun-related charges.

Nel, who earns about 1.3 million rand (HK$957,000) began his interrogation in shocking fashion, forcing the weeping and disconsolate athlete to look at gruesome images of Steenkamp's blood-mottled head, which, the prosecutor claimed, "exploded like a watermelon".

Nel demanded Pistorius acknowledge he made more than a mere "mistake", as the athlete insisted time after time as he maintained he shot the model and aspiring TV actress after mistaking her for an intruder.

"You will blame anybody but yourself," Nel told Pistorius in an attack on the character of the athlete. It was an attempt to shred the defence's presentation of its client as humble, responsible and loving towards the woman he killed.

Concluding his questioning on Tuesday, Nel demanded to know whom to blame for Steenkamp's death if Pistorius would not take responsibility.

"Should we blame Reeva? She never told you she was going to the toilet," he said.

"Should we blame the government?" he asked facetiously. Pistorius has claimed the police contaminated the crime scene, moving objects around and even stealing some of his watches.

The athlete blamed his legal team for inconsistencies in his accounts and appeared to change his defence midway through cross-examination, saying that he pulled the trigger of the gun "accidentally" rather than in self-defence.

Nel "managed to elicit conflicting versions from Oscar", according to David Dadic, a South African lawyer not involved in the case. "He definitely achieved what he set out to achieve."

The conflicting testimony was a sign, observers said, that Pistorius had abandoned his legal team's strategy.

"He suddenly went on his own, he now got angry with Nel and he now is going to take him on," said William Booth, a criminal lawyer. "I think it's a desperate man."

At one point, Nel laughed derisively at one of a number of answers from Pistorius that he described as evasive or contradictory or downright false, prompting Judge Thokozile Masipa to reprimand the prosecutor for the outburst. On another occasion, Masipa cautioned Nel to "mind your language" for accusing the athlete of lying.

In 2008, Nel was arrested in what his backers said was an attempt to interfere with the case against Selebi, the former police chief, but he was soon cleared.

Nel was also head of the regional branch of the Scorpions, a crime-fighting unit that was later disbanded in a decision that raised concern about the independence of law enforcement from politics in South Africa.

He was a prosecutor in a case leading to the convictions of two men for the 1993 killing of Chris Hani, an anti-apartheid leader whose death stirred fears of racial violence as South Africa transitioned from white rule to an all-race democracy.

A legal source, who did not wish to be named, said: "If you ask, 'is his cross-examination style unique to Oscar Pistorius?', the answer is no. That's how he's always been. People say he goes for the jugular, but he's got points to make and he makes them. He's not shy."

Yet on a recent afternoon, Nel left the court quietly, unassuming in a dark suit and open-necked shirt. Despite his newfound celebrity status, he walked across the street, almost unnoticed. By contrast, Pistorius is surrounded by security daily as he leaves the Pretoria court through a crush of press and bystanders.

As Nel told the court on Tuesday that he had "nothing further for this witness" after five gruelling days of cross-examination, Pistorius stepped down from the witness box, tearfully hugging younger sister Aimee.

After five days of being mauled by the pit bull, the runner's relief was evident.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, The Guardian