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"Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius awaits the start of court proceedings in the Pretoria Magistrates court February 19, 2013. (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)
"Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius awaits the start of court proceedings in the Pretoria Magistrates court February 19, 2013. (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

GEOFFREY YORK

Oscar Pistorius's character at heart of murder trial Add to ...

Hundreds of journalists from around the world will descend on the sleepy city of Pretoria next week for “the trial of the century,” as some local media are calling it. At the heart of it will be a debate over the character of a flawed hero: Olympic sprinter and double-amputee Oscar Pistorius.

Is he a gun-obsessed killer with an erratic temper? Or a tragic victim in a terrible accident that left his girlfriend dead? With no surviving eyewitnesses, except the “Blade Runner” himself, both sides in the murder trial that begins Monday will be spending much of their time arguing over the athlete’s personality, his fears and anger, his dangerous hobbies and his relationships with the women in his life.

On Valentine’s Day last year, Mr. Pistorius was arrested for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, through a bathroom door with his 9mm pistol. He says he thought she was an intruder who had broken through the bathroom window of his luxury home in a gated compound. Prosecutors will maintain that he knew exactly whom he was shooting.

Mr. Pistorius is a South African sports icon who captured global fame for overcoming his childhood leg amputations and challenging able-bodied athletes in world competitions, finally winning the right to race in the Olympics itself, rather than solely the Paralympics, with the help of carbon-fibre blades.

So famous is he, and so compelling is his life story, that the trial that begins on Monday is being compared to the most famous murder prosecution of recent decades: the trial of U.S. football superstar O.J. Simpson in 1995.

For the first time in South Africa, TV networks have obtained court permission to broadcast most of the trial live, using small remote-controlled cameras. One local satellite TV network is even launching an entire channel to broadcast solely the latest Pistorius reports for the duration of the trial.

Presiding in the courtroom will be Thokozile Matilda Masipa, a highly regarded judge and the second black woman to become a judge in South Africa. She is described as a strong supporter of women’s rights. She will be assisted by two assessors. South Africa abolished jury trials in 1969.

A large portion of the trial will focus on Mr. Pistorius and his well-known love of guns. Two gun-related charges were added to the original indictment, repeating the allegation from several witnesses that he had previously fired an automatic handgun in two public places – a busy Johannesburg restaurant and the open sunroof of a car on a public road.

One headline in a South African newspaper, just a week before the trial, promised to bring readers “inside Oscar’s angry world.” The report speculated about his “violent reaction” to perceived threats because of his amputated legs and the “insecurity” that created.

This kind of psychological guesswork could be a foreshadowing of a deluge to come. Legal reporters in South Africa have predicted that it will be an “ugly” trial, marked by what the defence will describe as a “character assassination” of the Olympic athlete. Prosecutors will insist that the evidence of previous gun violations is relevant to the murder charges, since it demonstrates a volatile temper and a readiness to pull the trigger without good cause.

Much of the trial testimony will dissect the relationship between Mr. Pistorius and his fashion-model girlfriend. According to witness lists and leaked statements before the trial, the prosecutors will suggest that Mr. Pistorius and Ms. Steenkamp were loudly arguing before the shooting, with her screams echoing through the night air of the compound, before the gunshots abruptly silenced them.

At a bail hearing last year, the defence suggested that the witnesses were too far away to hear what was happening.

In another new development, the prosecution has reportedly accepted that Mr. Pistorius was on his stumps, rather than his prosthetic legs, when he moved toward the bathroom and shot Ms. Steenkamp. This might give some support to the defence argument that he was afraid of an intruder and rushed quickly to the bathroom without taking time to don his artificial legs.

Parallel to the murder trial will be a fierce battle for public opinion, since Mr. Pistorius is still hoping to revive his lucrative career as a celebrity competitor at track events around the world.

On the anniversary of the shooting, Mr. Pistorius revived his own Twitter account to issue a carefully worded statement, saying the death of Ms. Steenkamp was a “devastating accident” that “consumes me with sorrow.”

He has been portrayed in the local media as a party animal who loved fast cars, racehorses and night life. Even after his arrest and bail hearing last year, there were reports that he was still hitting the night clubs in Johannesburg.

But now the Pistorius camp is putting out a different spin. One report, quoting a source “close to him,” gives a very different portrait of the athlete as a quiet and reflective man who “asks people to pray for Reeva’s family.” The report, in South Africa’s You magazine, said Mr. Pistorius is “surrounded by pictures” of Ms. Steenkamp. “His faith carries him,” the report said.

This week, the Pistorius publicity machine announced a new weapon in its arsenal: a Twitter feed, @OscarHardTruth, to give his side of the story throughout the trial. Its tagline: “Truth shall prevail, innocent until proven guilty.” It promises to provide “information that will become clearer during the trial.”

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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