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Geoffrey York

Key questions for Oscar Pistorius as his defence begins Friday Add to ...

It will be the day that has awaited Oscar Pistorius for more than 13 months: the day when he takes the witness stand and explains why he shot his girlfriend.

If the “Blade Runner” and his defence team can tell his story convincingly enough, in their case beginning Friday, it will be his best hope of avoiding prison and returning to the spectacular athletic career in which he made history as the first double-amputee to compete against able-bodied sprinters at the Olympics.

Mr. Pistorius could walk into the witness box as early as Friday for his crucial testimony. The prosecution has now rested its case, following three weeks of testimony on the death of Reeva Steenkamp, who was killed by hollow-point bullets from a 9mm pistol fired by Mr. Pistorius through the locked door of a toilet cubicle on Valentine’s Day last year.

Mr. Pistorius will be gently questioned by his lawyer, and then will face a much tougher series of questions from the prosecutor. Here are the key issues that he must explain, and a preview of how he and his legal team are expected to respond as they open their case on Friday:

Schalk van Zuydam/AP

The screams

 Four neighbours have testified they heard a woman’s screams, silenced by the final gunshots. If this testimony is upheld, it alone could be enough to convict Mr. Pistorius of murder, since it implies that he continued shooting after he knew who was behind the door. The four neighbours have been strong witnesses: seemingly honest, credible and reliable, with no reason to lie.

The defence will argue that the “woman’s screams” were actually uttered by Mr. Pistorius as he screamed for help. It will maintain that Mr. Pistorius screams “like a woman” when he is anxious. It will also argue that the “gunshots” were the noise of a cricket bat on the door as Mr. Pistorius battered it down to try to save Ms. Steenkamp’s life.

Andrea Ettwein/Reuters

Gap between gunshots

A ballistics expert has testified that the first shot hit Ms. Steenkamp on the hip, causing her to fall into a semi-seated position, where the final bullets hit her. The gap between the shots would have given her enough time to scream, and a medical expert testified that she was capable of screaming if she was wounded in the hip. This again would imply that Mr. Pistorius knew who was behind the door and continued shooting.

The defence will argue that Mr. Pistorius fired “double-tap” shots in rapid succession, and that Ms. Steenkamp was too badly injured to scream.

Siphiwe Sibeko/AP

Pattern of recklessness with guns

Witnesses have testified that Mr. Pistorius fired his pistol through a car’s open sunroof and discharged a gun at a busy restaurant, asking a friend to take the blame. And a gun-safety expert has testified that Mr. Pistorius knew the dangers of guns because he had correctly answered exam questions on how he shouldn’t shoot unless he knew his life was threatened.

The defence will deny that Mr. Pistorius shot recklessly in the two incidents, and it will deny that the incidents have any connection to the shooting of Ms. Steenkamp. It will argue that Mr. Pistorius genuinely believed that an intruder had broken into his house and was behind the bathroom door.

Thembani Makhubele/Reuters

Arguments with his girlfriend

To answer the question of motive, the prosecution cited evidence from WhatsApp cellphone messages in which Mr. Pistorius seemed jealous, possessive and prone to fits of rage.

“I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me,” Ms. Steenkamp told him in one message. “You do everything to throw tantrums. … I am certainly very unhappy and sad.” This character evidence could be reinforced by the testimony about his cover-up of the restaurant shooting, suggesting he was willing to lie to avoid embarrassment.

The defence will use the same series of cellphone messages to argue that Mr. Pistorius and Ms. Steenkamp had a loving relationship and their infrequent arguments were quickly resolved.

Siphiwe Sibeko/AP

Decision to shoot without asking questions

This could be the prosecution’s strongest point, since it doesn’t hinge on whether he deliberately tried to kill Ms. Steenkamp. The prosecution argument is that Mr. Pistorius was attempting to kill the person behind the cubicle door, no matter who it was.

From his gun-safety training, he knew he wasn’t permitted to fire his weapon unless someone was directly attacking him, yet he still fired four bullets through the door, at close range, at a person in a confined space, knowing he would probably kill the person.

The simple question, and perhaps the most powerful of all, is why Mr. Pistorius shot through the door without waiting to see who was behind it – and why he didn’t bother to check whether Ms. Steenkamp was in the bedroom.

The defence will argue that he had seen his girlfriend in their bed a few moments earlier and assumed she was still there. It will argue that Mr. Pistorius genuinely believed an intruder had climbed through the bathroom window and was preparing to attack.

Follow me on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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