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Absorbed South Africa soaks up daily saga of Pistorius trial

The Canadian Press

3/16/2014 11:57:44 AM

PRETORIA, South Africa - Children chatter about the Oscar Pistorius murder trial at South African schools, startling parents with details about how the athlete fatally shot his girlfriend. Big audiences in South Africa are watching a 24-hour television channel dedicated to coverage of the sensational trial. Turns of phrase from the courtroom — the defence lawyer's "I put it to you" challenge to prosecution witnesses — are creeping into popular culture.

The rise and fall of the double-amputee runner, who competed in the London Olympics in 2012 and then killed model Reeva Steenkamp less than a year after that inspirational triumph, is a consuming saga for South Africans that has drawn sheepish comparisons to reality television shows. The more people hear, the hungrier they are for more.

Was Oscar on his stumps or wearing prosthetic limbs when he battered the toilet door with a cricket bat? Does he scream like a woman, as the defence suggests, or did neighbours indeed hear a woman's screams on the night of the killing? Will apparent missteps by police investigators muddy the prosecution's case? Did Pistorius vomit during graphic testimony about Steenkamp's wounds because of anguish, or was he trying to curry sympathy with the impassive judge?

Some people turn up their noses at the spectacle, then dive into television or social media to soak up the latest, often extraordinary revelations. The parade of witnesses, some shown in the televised proceedings and some concealed from TV viewers to respect their privacy, gives a glimpse into rich, diverse, flawed and accomplished lives, swept into a single narrative from previously anonymous routines.

Prof. Gert Saayman, the pathologist, described Steenkamp's wounds and the general impact of gunshots on flesh and bone in metaphor-studded monologues so precise and structured that they were almost lyrical, the macabre contents notwithstanding. Here was a man, clinical and courtly, who had conducted between 10,000 and 15,000 autopsies over the decades.

"Death is effectively a process rather than an event, and may take some minutes for it to come to its conclusion at a physiological level," he said.

Saayman was followed by witness Darren Fresco, who dropped an expletive while recounting alleged gunplay involving Pistorius, his onetime friend, in the months before the runner shot his girlfriend. Fresco seemed miffed at the defence's suggestion that he was wearing tracksuit pants in the middle of summer, rather than shorts as he claims, during a 2012 incident in which a gun went off in a Johannesburg restaurant.

"If It's got Wheels or a Skirt it's Gonna Cost You Money," reads the caption on Fresco's Twitter feed. Fast-living image aside, he aptly summarized the intense media coverage, saying it seemed to be everywhere: "It doesn't matter where you look, where you turn, where you go, what you listen to, what you watch."

Later came the police investigators, cast by defence lawyer Barry Roux as bumblers reminiscent of the "Keystone Cops" characters from the old silent movies. Col. Johannes Vermeulen squatted awkwardly as he sought to show that Pistorius was not wearing prostheses when he hit the toilet door with a cricket bat, based on the policeman's analysis of marks in the wood.

"I'm not standing on my knees when I'm washing the dishes," Vermeulen said to emphasize his point.

"Maybe if you're scared of your wife, you can do that," Roux replied, briefly lightening the sombre mood.

Pistorius said he hit the door with the bat after realizing he had shot Steenkamp by mistake, fearing she was an intruder. Prosecutors say he killed her after an argument.

South Africans are increasingly captivated by Roux's relentless cross-examination. A producer at the Highveld Stereo radio station recorded a parody rap song. Lyrics include: "I put it to you/that it is true/everything you say/I will misconstrue/I'm Barry Roux/And I put it to you/Ten times in a row/Just to confuse you."

The 2-week-old trial is expected to run into April. One commentator said it is even interfering with South African democracy ahead of elections on May 7.

"The trial will peak at the same time as the election campaign swings into high gear, which means political parties will have to take extraordinary measures to hold the voters' attention," Ranjeni Munusamy wrote in the Daily Maverick, an online news outlet.

The role of Jaco van Vuuren, the court sketch artist, seems quaint alongside all the high-tech scrutiny. Van Vuuren, who knew Pistorius before the killing, said it was emotionally difficult at first.

"I said to him before this court session that I'm not there to judge him. I'm just there to do my job," van Vuuren told South Africa's Eyewitness News. "He understands it. And the first day, he just hugged me and asked me for coffee."