Oscar Pistorius: South Africa gears up for its ‘trial of the century’

Story highlights

Oscar Pistorius's trial for premeditated murder of girlfriend begins on Monday

Reeva Steenkamp shot dead by Pistorius' at his home in Pretoria, South Africa on Valentine's Day 2013

Double amputee Paralympic and Olympic sprinter says he mistook her for burglar

Parts of South Africa's "trial of the century" will be broadcast live on television

CNN —  

He was one of South Africa’s favorite sons, an amputee track star who defied all the odds and sprinted into the hearts of millions during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. She was a staggering beauty with the brains to match, a law graduate and model whose star was on the rise.

Pistorius, now 27, and Steenkamp, 29, were a young, attractive, high-profile couple popular in South Africa’s social circles.

Everything changed before dawn on Valentine’s Day 2013, as Steenkamp lay lifeless in a pool of blood on the floor of her boyfriend’s house in an upscale gated community in Pretoria.

He says he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar. The state says it was cold-blooded murder.

When Pistorius steps once again into the spotlight Monday, more than a year after that fateful morning, it will be as the defendant in South Africa’s “trial of the century.” Hundreds of journalists from around the world will be in Pretoria to witness the proceedings get under way. Millions more will follow parts of the trial on live television, thanks to a judge’s decision last week allowing cameras in a South African courtroom for the first time – although any testimony by Pistorius, or witnesses who do not consent, will not be televised.

INTERACTIVE: Explore each side’s argument

Pistorius faces one charge of premeditated murder in the shooting death of Steenkamp, a firearms charge associated with her killing, and two separate gun indictments from previous incidents. In South Africa, murder carries a mandatory life sentence.

The sprinter’s lawyers will argue he was a man deeply in love with his girlfriend who made a terrible mistake.

“I felt a sense of terror rushing over me,” he said in his court affidavit. “There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside.”

“It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.”

“I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed.”

READ: Oscar Pistorius’ affidavit to court in full

“I noticed that the bathroom window was open. I realized that the intruder/s was/were in the toilet because the toilet door was closed and I did not see anyone in the bathroom. I heard movement inside the toilet. The toilet is inside the bathroom and has a separate door.”

“I fired shots at the toilet door and shouted to Reeva to phone the police. She did not respond and I moved backwards out of the bathroom, keeping my eyes on the bathroom entrance. Everything was pitch dark in the bedroom and I was still too scared to switch on a light. Reeva was not responding. When I reached the bed, I realised that Reeva was not in bed.”

Pistorius claims he went back to put his prosthetic legs on, and found Steenkamp inside the bathroom slumped over. He says he carried her downstairs, where she died in his arms.

Prosecutors are painting a different picture. They say the pair had an argument and that Steenkamp locked herself in the toilet.

Observers believe the case will hinge on several pieces of evidence:

Was Pistorius wearing his prosthetics?

Pistorius, who was born with a congenital abnormality and had both legs amputated before his first birthday, says he wasn’t wearing his prosthetics at the time of the shooting.

Prosecutors say the sprinter’s act was a premeditated murder – that he took the time to put on his legs before walking to the bathroom and shot through the toilet door, intentionally killing his girlfriend.

What will ballistic tests on the door show? It will be crucial to hear the evidence from police experts on where the bullets hit the door and at what angle. Will the tests on the toilet door show that the trajectory of the bullets came downwards from a higher angle than would be possible if Pistorius was firing from his stumps? If true, it could bolster the state’s case that Steenkamp’s killing was premeditated. Or will Pistorius’ version of the story – that he was on his stumps – be borne out by forensics?

Were Pistorius and Steenkamp arguing?

Pistorius says he and Steenkamp enjoyed a quiet dinner at home on the night of her death. “She was doing her yoga exercises and I was in bed watching television,” he said in his court affidavit last year. “We were deeply in love and I could not be happier.”

But authorities say a witness living 300 meters from Pistorius’ home heard the couple having a heated argument in the early hours of Valentine’s Day – an assertion the track star’s team disputed at his bail hearing.

Will phone data be the smoking gun?

The cell phones found at the scene could make or break Pistorius’ case. Modern GPS technology can trace a phone’s location within a meter as it is carried from one place to another. Steenkamp had taken her phone with her when she went to the bathroom. Did she try to call anyone in the moments before her death? Was Pistorius really in bed at 10 p.m., as he has claimed? The phone data may be able to tell the story of the couple’s movements that night.

At last year’s bail hearing in Pretoria, the magistrate also castigated police for failing to trace phone calls from Pistorius’ home. But phones were far from the only problem the state had in laying out its case.

South African police in the spotlight

Hilton Botha, the lead investigator at the time, admitted that investigators contaminated the crime scene by walking through the house without wearing protective foot covers because they had run out of them.

Botha also testified that investigators had found two boxes of testosterone and needles at Pistorius’ home – to audible gasps from the packed courtroom – before backtracking and admitting he may have misread the label. The defense said it was an herbal remedy.

The longer the hearing went on, the more holes appeared to show in the prosecution’s case. At one point Pistorius’ attorney forced a beleaguered Botha to admit that the state had thus far found no evidence to contradict the runner’s version of events. Police in Pretoria soon pulled Botha off the case.

Pistorius has never denied killing Steenkamp. “I cannot bear to think of the suffering I have caused her and her family, knowing how much she was loved. I also know that the events of that tragic night were as I have described them,” he claims in his affidavit.  

If he isn’t convicted of premeditated murder, the sprinter would still face a lesser charge of “culpable homicide,” a crime based on negligence, and could be looking at up to 15 years in jail, experts say.

READ MORE: South Africa’s legal system in the spotlight

Pistorius is not claiming self-defense; he is claiming to have been mistaken about his need for self-defense. He is denying that he intentionally unlawfully killed Steenkamp.

If the court were to rule that his mistake was unreasonable – based on what an objective, ordinary South African would do in the circumstances of the accused – he would be found guilty of culpable homicide.

The first round of the trial, which begins on Monday, is expected to last three weeks. South Africa abolished jury trials in 1969, and Pistorius’ case will be heard by Thokozile Matilda Masipa, only the second black woman appointed to the bench since the end of apartheid.

READ MORE: Case highlights South African gun culture

The case has put the spotlight on South Africa’s rampant gun violence and high crime rates.

The trial has also divided opinion in South Africa. Many of his fans find it difficult to believe a national hero could be capable of the crime he’s been charged with. Others find his version of events that night implausible, and point to troubling details that the case has dredged up about Pistorius’ past.

READ MORE: Who is “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius?

In its indictment, police described Pistorius recklessly shooting a 9mm handgun out of the sunroof of a car on a public road in 2010. Police have also charged him with unlawfully firing a Glock 27 pistol at a restaurant in January of 2012. A friend of the sprinter told CNN that Pistorius was showing the gun to a friend when it went off at the outdoor café accidently.

Pistorius has shied away from the spotlight since the shooting and his release from jail after a highly publicized hearing.

“We have no doubt there is no substance to the allegation and that the state’s own case, including its own forensic evidence, strongly refutes any possibility of a premeditated murder or indeed any murder at all,” Arnold Pistorius said.

READ: Reeva Steenkamp, from model to law graduate

Hundreds of miles from Pretoria, Reeva Steenkamp’s parents now run a pub called the Barking Spider in Port Elizabeth. Some of her family members, including her mother, have said that they will attend the trial. It will be the first time they’ll face their daughter’s killer in court. They have not been at previous court appearances because they said they wanted privacy. Now they are seeking “closure, and to know that our daughter did not suffer on that tragic Valentine’s Day,” the parents said in a prepared statement in mid-February.

Steenkamp’s family, meanwhile, has tried to focus on Reeva’s memory – not on the media and legal circus unfolding in Pretoria.

“It’s not about the court case,” her uncle, Mike Steenkamp, told CNN. “It’s about Reeva, and Reeva can never be part of it.”

At the same time, Mike Steenkamp said seeing Pistorius at the trial may bring at least some closure to what has been a harrowing year for the family.

“I would like to be face to face with him and forgive him, forgive him for what he’s done. That way I can then probably find more peace.”

READ MORE: Photos show Steenkamp’s transformation

READ: What life’s like in a South African prison

CNN’s Robyn Curnow, Ashley Fantz, Susannah Cullinane and CNN Wires contributed to this report.