Pistorius case - Pistorius trial: Q and A

After Oscar Pistorius’s latest court appearance over the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, we take a look at the key questions and issues.

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Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock (Reuters)

What charge does Pistorius face?

Pistorius is charged with the premeditated murder of Reeva Steenkamp on February 14. Steenkamp was shot and killed in Pistorius’ home in Pretoria.

What does Pistorius claim happened?

Pistorius does not deny shooting Steenkamp, but claims he had believed that Steenkamp was in fact an intruder into his home and that her death was a tragic accident rather than a murder. He will claim ‘putative self-defence’, and having already admitted pulling the trigger, experts say he the onus will be on him to prove that it was not murder.

What has happened since the hearing?

Pistorius has kept a low-profile and the initial fevered coverage has died down. A rare visit to a restaurant ended abruptly when he was recognised, while talk of a return to athletics (he is technically still free to compete) was quashed.

What happened in February?

Pistorius was arrested on the morning of February 14, and charged with murder a day later.

His bail hearing was a four-day affair, in which many of the arguments that could feature in the case were voiced. But the hearing was only ever to establish whether Pistorius could be released on bail rather than wait for his trial in prison. On February 22, Magistrate Desmond Nair determined that Pistorius could be released.

Why was he released on bail?

Bail could only be granted in a premeditated murder case if ‘exceptional circumstances’ could be proven. Magistrate Nair said that the prosecution team had not proven that Pistorius, who is extremely well-known throughout South Africa, and recognisable by virtue of his prosthetic limbs, would be a flight risk.

What conditions were imposed on his bail?

The bail was set at one million rand – approximately £74,000. On top of that fee there were a further 12 criteria, including surrendering firearms, handing in his passport, and living away from his home. Full conditions

These terms were challenged following the hearing. Some of the prohibitions were only ever specified verbally in court and therefore Judge Bert Bam said that they did not apply. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel has said he plans to serve Pistorius with an indictment when the full trial begins.

When does the trial start?

Defence lawyers and prosecutors have agreed to a postponement until August 19 to give detectives time they say is necessary to finalise their investigation. The actual trial will not take place until late this year or early 2014, as once the investigation is finished the defence team will be given the opportunity to review the evidence against their client.

Will Pistorius face a jury?

No. South Africa no longer has a trial by jury system, after it was abolished in 1969 for fear of prejudice by white jurors. His first public appearance since the trial will again be at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court where his bail hearing was held.

How long before a verdict is reached?

A complex and high-profile case of this nature could last anywhere between four and six months, experts say. Criminal law lecturer in South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand told CNN that he believed that if Pistorius’ character became a point in the trial there could be a huge proliferation in the number of witnesses called, making the case longer still.

What sentences could he face?

Premeditated murder carries a life sentence in South Africa (usually 25 years in practice). Exceptional circumstances – such as Pistorius’s disability or previously clean record – could be used as arguments against the full sentence.

Even if Pistorius is found not guilty, he is still at risk of being found guilty of culpable homicide. Having shot Steenkamp, it is up to the defence to prove that Pistorius only did what any ordinary South African would have reasonably done in the same circumstances. The sentence for culpable homicide is not fixed – there have been instances where defendants have avoided prison altogether, but terms of 15 years are also possible.

Where would Pistorius serve his jail time, and would his conditions be special?

This has yet to be determined, but South Africa’s prisons have a reputation for toughness, and CNN report that even blind convicts are placed with sighted prisoners in the country. Had he been denied bail, Pistorius would have faced time in Pretoria Central Prison.

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