Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gerrie Nel, Pistorius's Pit Bull Prosecutor

Gerrie Nel, Pistorius’s pit bull prosecutor

South African lawyer, renowned as a battler in the cause of justice, who shuns the limelight
Joe Cummings illustration of Gerrie Nel
If there were any doubts about Gerrie Nel aiming straight for the jugular as he interrogated the Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, they were dispelled when watermelons were introduced into his line of questioning.
It was the first time Mr Nel, one of South Africa’s toughest state prosecutors, was unleashed on Mr Pistorius in his trial for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend. The prosecutor’s tone was stern as he prepared to show the court footage of the athlete laughing as he blasted melons at a shooting range.





“What you can see there is the effect the ammunition had on a watermelon. It exploded,” said Mr Nel as he grilled Mr Pistorius in the high court in Pretoria last week. “You know that the same happened to Reeva’s head: it exploded.” Producing a photograph of Steenkamp’s head taken after the shooting, he continued: “Have a look. I know you don’t want to because you don’t want to take responsibility but it’s time that you look at it.”
“I’ve taken responsibility,” Mr Pistorius replied as he broke down in tears. “But I will not look at a picture where I’m tormented.”
Judge Thokozile Masipa gave Mr Pistorius, 27, time to compose himself, halting the proceedings briefly. Millions worldwide have watched one of the world’s best-known sport stars, who in 2012 became the first double-amputee to compete on the Olympic track, reduced to an emotional wreck. The exchange was just one of several brutal moments during days of relentless but gripping questioning by the diminutive Mr Nel, whose combative style has earned him the tag “pit bull”.
In a tenacious performance, Mr Nel has shown impatience, disbelief and frustration. The athlete, who denies the charges, says he shot Steenkamp by mistake early on February 14, 2013, Valentine’s day. But Mr Nel, described as fearless and fearsome when on a case, is having none of it. Concluding his cross-examination this week, he said Mr Pistorius was using his “emotional state as an escape” from tough questioning.
Colleagues speak of a private, unassuming, family man, a dedicated career prosecutor who spurned the chance of greater riches in private practice. The only thing he seems wary of is the limelight. A request to the National Prosecuting Authority for his CV was rebuffed: “He does not want publicity in any way. He’s just not interested in being a celebrity.” Says a former colleague: “I’m sure he’s completely and utterly appalled [with the attention], and that he can’t wait to finalise the trial and go back to being anonymous.”
The former colleague describes Mr Nel, a trim figure with close-cropped hair who is thought to be in his 50s, as a conservative, stoic Afrikaner with three decades of experience. “You learn your trade the hard way, you learn by your mistakes. You start off prosecuting in traffic courts and you make your way up,” the former colleague says. “The criminal justice system in South Africa . . . doesn’t breed softies . . . .It’s an aggressive, hard place to be.”
South Africa’s criminal justice system doesn’t breed softies. It’s an aggressive, hard place to be
After a series of difficult episodes involving the police, Mr Nel’s performance has reinforced confidence in state prosecutors. The sight of two Afrikaner lawyers battling it out in front of a black female judge has been taken as a symbol of change in South Africa.
Mr Nel was raised in Limpopo, a poor, rural province in the north, before moving to Pretoria in 1979 to study law, according to a South African profile. By 1993 he was a junior prosecutor at the trial of the murderers of Chris Hani, a hero of the anti-apartheid struggle whose killing rocked South Africa just as it was making the precarious transition to democracy.
Mr Nel made headlines in 2008 when armed police raided his home, arresting him in front of his wife and children. He was then a senior official with the Scorpions, an elite anti-corruption unit that was investigating Jackie Selebi, the national police commissioner. The charges against him were dropped, deemed politically motivated.
Days later Mr Nel resumed his role, going on to prosecute Mr Selebi successfully. But the Scorpions were disbanded amid concerns about political interference in the security services and the NPA. “He knows no fear,” says Vusi Pikoli, a former NPA head who initiated the Selebi investigation. “He was not afraid of anything.”
Mr Pikoli recalls a disciplined “nice guy” who enjoys golf and wrestling – one South African paper wrote recently of Mr Nel spending his evenings teaching local children the sport – and a prosecutor who is “relentless” in pursuit of the truth. “He’s not playing to TV or the audience,” Mr Pikoli says. “He’s doing what he normally does.”
If convicted of premeditated murder, Mr Pistorius faces a sentence of at least 25 years in prison. He insists he fired four times through the door of a toilet at his Pretoria house because he believed there was an intruder inside; it was only later he realised it was Steenkamp, a model and law graduate. Mr Nel has portrayed Mr Pistorius as a self-centred, short-tempered gun enthusiast who is economical with the truth, as he seeks to convince the judge that the athlete shot Steenkamp knowingly after a row.
“There’s a sense of duty – a crusader for justice,” says an advocate who knows him. “He would say, no, he’s just doing his job. But he’s so determined because he would hate to see someone like [Mr] Pistorius get off. It would enrage him: not because it’s anything personal but just because the facts of the case seem to indicate the man murdered his girlfriend.”
Even defence lawyers acknowledge his performance. “He’s done quite an efficient job with Oscar Pistorius, but again Oscar is probably regarded. . . . as a poor witness,” says William Booth. “He’s probably been his own worst enemy, but a lot of that has been brought out by the aggressive, sometimes stepping over the line, cross-examination.”
Indeed, Ms Masipa has reprimanded Mr Nel on occasion. But the pit bull is unlikely to let go. He ended one grilling with the warning: “Mr Pistorius, I’m not going away.”
The writer is the FT’s Southern Africa bureau chief
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  1. ReportIncandenza | April 19 1:22pm | Permalink
    Another thing I can't understand is why Pistorius's defence team did not apply to sever the indictment. At the moment, a load of random firearms charges are being tried together with the murder charge. These charges would never be tried together in England, since they are totally unrelated: an application by the defence to sever the indictment would inevitably succeed. Is South African criminal procedure a total free-for-all, or is Pistorius's legal team as inept as Nel?
  2. ReportIncandenza | April 19 1:19pm | Permalink
    Also, "users" - are you nuts? Your post is rather sickening. A woman should never, ever be blamed for being shot by her own partner.
  3. ReportIncandenza | April 19 1:15pm | Permalink
    pcatbar - great post. I completely agree. I am currently training to become a barrister, due to start a pupillage in October, and I can confirm that a barrister would be reported to the Bar Standards Board if he/she tried anything like this in an English court. Indeed, Nel's performance would probably fail most advocacy exams in England. The most astonishing thing is that the case against Pistorius is so strong that there is no need for an excessively aggressive cross-examination. I've seen litigants in person do a better job than Nel. The funny part is that so many journos seem to think that Nel is top-quality.
  4. Reportusers | April 19 12:46pm | Permalink
    It is avery sad this woman lost her life but she made choice to be w a man that was known to have a temper. she already knew this.. and paid a dear price. you do not go home and spend the night w men that are known abusers.. she was getting allt ypes of media attention hanging w OP and she should not have trusted him wo knowing him better... jealous jocks are known to have insecure personalities.. she made a poor choice, tons of great men out there ..why did she pick him ?
  5. ReportActuary | April 19 11:59am | Permalink
    ReaderOpinion, spare us the simplistic analogies. Let's elaborate: if acquitted, 'it would be like saying' that a sober driver who kills somebody in traffic should be exempt from responsibility if this driver was blindfolded and was under the impression that the person who he has killed in traffic posed an immediate threat to either himself or his loved one driving alongside him. I am not going to pass judgement on whether OP is guilty or not (though I do think what he has done is incredibly stupid), but I will say that the case is hardly as cut and dry as some tabloid readers would make it seem.
  6. ReportActuary | April 19 11:43am | Permalink
    Gerrie Nel is, in my frank view, a totally disgusting and repulsive individual. There is the notion of dichotomy in law wherein both the defense and persecution needs to be equally unsparing, as they cannot expect the other side to give way either, but this is far above and beyond what should have been tolerable to Nel as a human being; a condition he's showing very little sign of. There is no way I would tolerate his idea of persecution if I would ever have the fortune of being cross-examined by him, and would take additional steps to make his life difficult following the conclusion of the trial. What nerve.
  7. Reportpcatbar | April 19 11:08am | Permalink
    I polled the opinion of a senior UK criminal silk (who shall remain nameless) on the performance of the prosecutor in South Africa. Thought you might be interested…

    “I wholly agree with your comments. I thought the defence counsel was tedious and hammy and the background performance of OP largely unconvincing but the aggression and unfairness of the prosecutor is astonishing. [A retired prosecutor] and I have been corresponding and neither of us could see the admissibility or relevance of much of the State's evidence, e.g. asking a friend to take the blame for accidentally firing a gun. But the cross-examination has started off with totally improper and tactics. How can it be a question to insist that the accused look at distressing photos merely to make him say that which has never disputed, that he killed her?

    As you say, the Judge seems not to intervene. I thought, at an early stage, that she may have died and been mummified. At first, I believed that she was giving OP and his counsel as much leeway was needed to head off any criticism that he had been treated unfairly, but her failure now to intervene suggests lack of understanding of the role of the judge.

    What has struck me forcibly is the incompetence of the prosecutor. Not only is his tone misjudged and likely to cause a swell of sympathy for a man against whom he has, otherwise, a very strong case and not only does it cause revulsion in anyone who believes that the role of the prosecutor should be rooted in fairness, but he missed the most obvious and golden opportunity to start his questions. OP concluded his XIC by saying 'I didn't mean to kill Reeva...I didn't intend to kill anybody'. My first question would have been: Have you told the truth throughout your evidence? And assuming an affirmative answer, my next would be: You say that you believed that an intruder was behind the door and you fired four times a powerful handgun which was loaded with dum-dum bullets, manufactured to create the maximum damage on impact. Was the second part of your answer not a lie?”
  8. ReportReaderOpinion | April 19 10:48am | Permalink
    If acquitted, this is the same as saying that a drunk driver who kills someone in traffic should be exempt from responsibility because it was a road accident.
  9. Reportthornton | April 19 10:44am | Permalink
    @rpmcestmoi This isn't a good time to quote Pilate, but in his words, "...what is truth?" As I recall, it was Plato who said that, "...facts are raw, brute things in need of interpretation." I agree! With a given set data, a Keynesian would be an advocate of more government spending, while Laffer would want to lower taxes.

    At the time of the OJ Simpson trial, I asked some mothers of divorced sons and mothers of divorced daughters about their opinions. Interesting.. All the mothers of divorced sons I asked thought he was innocent.

    Gerrie Nel may be doing his job well as you say, but what was truth to a man in Boston who was wrongly convicted on a rape charge? Truth was that he spent twelve years in prison, lost his family, his career and waited many years for compensation after DNA testing excluded him. The truth was that he didn't have any prior convictions and was the same colour as the perpetrator. Unfortunately, "truth", like "beauty", is in the eye of the observer.
  10. ReportRusty | April 19 10:01am | Permalink
    I watched most of the cross-examination of Pistorius on TV.. It gave me a very different perspective than that provided by the sound-bites in the news. Gerrie Nel is all about the techniques of interrogation:

    The overall approach was to try and knock Pistorius around so he got confused and was off balance, while Nel tried to establish himself as "the truth" and moral authority in the room.

    There were almost no questions, as most people would understand them. Nel simply shot out statements and waited for Pistorius to say something. He jumped from one topic to another constantly. Often what Nel said made little sense, was deeply ambiguous, or was clearly inaccurate (based on hard evidence). He accused Pistorius of lying over the most trivial of things, often by relating words that he (Nel) remembered Pistorius saying - even if out of context. Nel's purpose seemed to be to try and break Pistorius down, or at least to get him to look so confused that you could not rely on anything he said.

    I genuinely wondered if this is what they teach at military interrogation school. The judge was actually the most impressive person in the room. I felt that she understood the technique and at several times she intervened.

    I might be surprised by the verdict, but listening to it all - my impression is that it was an accident.
  11. ReportCmartin | April 19 9:33am | Permalink
    Having a lot of guts is good on the tarmac but not for the daily life. This case doesn't have many layers. You shoot four times through a locked door to protect your significant other who is not even by your side on Valentine's day ! Come on, give me a break ! You don't have to be the most brilliant prosecutor in the world to win the case !
  12. ReportAthanase | April 19 9:25am | Permalink
    If Pistorius thought there was an intruder in the bathroom, this still does not make it legal to shoot him. Not even having seen the intruder, he cannot even argue that he acted in self-defence.
    Assuming this, Mr Pistorius would be a murderer anyway.
    Is his defence trying to appeal to a deep-rooted fear of crime, committed by a stereotypical (black scum) crook, who can legitimately be shot at any time?
    This would leave a choice between a racially motivated and an emotionally motivated murder. The choice should not buy Mr Pistorius extra time outside ol' stripey.
  13. Reportbeachcomber | April 19 9:02am | Permalink
    Sadly,the excellent job of prosecution of Selebi has amounted to nothing with him being kept out of jail (like Shaik) on "medical grounds".

    Many South Africans look forward to him prosecuting the State President on charges of corruption.
  14. ReportKeithTunstall | April 19 8:41am | Permalink
    If Pistorius wanted to kill her why wait until there was a bathroom door in the way?

    On the other hand, did she try to escape from him by going into the bathroom?
  15. Reportrpmcestmoi | April 18 11:37pm | Permalink
    This prosecutor is a remarkably tough, centered man, the kind you would want ferreting out the truth in these awful circumstances. Admirable.
  16. Reportaegian | April 18 9:31pm | Permalink
    It is very difficult for those who once lived in RSA to watch this trial. It is almost a test case of the entire society and the place within that country of all its people and how they interact.
  17. Reportthornton | April 18 8:45pm | Permalink
    This prosecutor is like most who will say and/or ask anything to get a conviction. How else can he be promoted or become an elected official? No jury!? Was the prosecutor there? If you were the accused, would you know how you would respond if you were innocent or guilty? I hear people say that you have to expect that the system isn't perfect and people fall through the cracks, but not one of them has had to do time in prison or sit on death row because of a wrong conviction.

    Should he be allowed to write a book? No, because he shouldn't profit from his crimes if he committed them, but CNN's partner station is allowed to make millions flaunting situations, preying on the pain and travesties of those who are accused and families of victims.

    My heart goes out to the family of the deceased and the accused. If he weren't famous and she weren't so beautiful, I wonder what the trial would have been like. Perhaps there is a concerted effort because this is the case. Fame and wealth can work against the accused. I believe it was the case with Patricia Hearst.
    Some thoughts..

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