Jill Smolowe
April 07, 2014 12:00 PM

Lots of runners vomit after a hard workout. Paralympian star Oscar Pistorius is not one of them. “I never saw him throw up on the track,” says Ray Wicksell, the South African runner’s first agent and longtime friend. Yet heaving has become a recurring event in the Pretoria courtroom where Pistorius is standing trial for the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, model and law grad Reeva Steenkamp, 29. Starting on week two of the trial, graphic photos of Steenkamp bloodied by four bullet holes caused a sobbing Pistorius to hurl violently into a blue metal bucket. Twice, Judge Thokozile Masipa offered to pause the proceedings. But Pistorius signaled that he wanted to continue. “He is very emotional,” his attorney Barry Roux told the court. “It is not going to change.” When more disturbing images were next flashed on March 13, Pistorius again retched, prompting Masipa to order the screen near Pistorius turned off. “Seeing him throw up, that just said to me he’s finished,” says a sympathetic Wicksell. “His inner soul is bad.”

Week four of the trial hardly rekindled the once-revered runner’s spirit. Reading from messages downloaded from Steenkamp’s iPhone (see box), police captain Francois Moller offered a portrait of Steenkamp’s three-month relationship with Pistorius, 27, as normal and loving most of the time – interspersed with episodes of jealousy and fear. “I’m scared of u sometimes and how u snap at me,” Steenkamp wrote less than three weeks before her death. “I was not flirting with anyone today and I feel sick that u suggested that.” Accusing him of “tantrums” and being “nasty,” she ended one message, “I’m certainly very unhappy and sad.”

To all appearances, Pistorius is too. In court the question is whether Pistorius’s soul aches from guilt for deliberately murdering Steenkamp, as the prosecution contends, or if the four fatal shots he fired blindly through a bathroom door in his home on Valentine’s Day 2013 were intended to stop what he has said he thought was a dead-of-night intruder into his Pretoria home in a posh gated community. In a trial that has become an obsession for many South Africans, the star athlete (known as Blade Runner for his high-tech prosthetic legs) has been sitting alone in the dock, crying, staring at his lap and holding his head in his hands as prosecution witnesses describe an athlete comfortable with guns and prone to anger, while the defense’s cross-examination points to a police investigation tainted by ineptness. Ultimately his fate lies with Judge Masipa, who, assisted by two lay people called assessors, will decide the verdict. But though rockstar-like squeals greet Pistorius each day as he enters the court, the court of public opinion also weighs heavily on him. “This is going to test him on every level,” says Wicksell. “He believes people hate him.”

While in the dock each day, the athlete, clad in suits and glasses, looks for reassurance to a rotating cast of a dozen or so relatives who attend the trial. His older brother Carl and his younger sister Aimee Pistorius are there every day, with Aimee sometimes leaving her seat to embrace him when he grows distraught. And outside of court, he turns for comfort to a new girlfriend, Leah Skye Malan, 19, an emergency medical care student at the University of Johannesburg. On weekends the couple often visit the small farm owned by Malan’s parents, Beverley and Andre, in Potchefstroom, two hours from Pretoria.

With his own $450,000 house up for sale to pay his legal costs, Pistorius is living in the Pretoria home of his uncle Arnold Pistorius, a wealthy real estate developer. Rather than venture onto local tracks, he works out in his uncle’s home gym. “He’s like a caged lion,” says Wicksell. Before the trial, Wicksell recalls, a car pulled up to block his parking space in a lot, then a man got out and walked toward him. “He had a full beard, a cap and sunglasses on,” Wicksell says. “I didn’t recognize him until he said, ‘Ray, it’s Oscar.’ ” As the men hugged, Wicksell asked if Pistorius was okay. “You know, not really,” he answered. “Not too many people are supporting me right now.”

Lacking an eyewitness, the prosecution team is attempting to build a circumstantial case with 107 witnesses. The aim is to paint Pistorius as a gun-crazy, temperamental man capable of deliberately firing at Steenkamp. Toward that end, the testimony of Samantha Taylor, 20, one of his former girlfriends, proved particularly compelling. During their relationship, she testified, Pistorius constantly carried a gun and once used it to threaten another driver who he thought had trailed the couple into his gated community. “He jumped out of the car with his gun and held it to someone’s window,” she said. Taylor also described behavior that echoed Pistorius’s own explanation for the shots that killed Steenkamp: fear of intruders. “There was probably one or two occasions,” she said, “when he woke me up to ask if I heard something.”

Other witnesses cast doubt on Pistorius’s contention that he fired the four shots in rapid succession: too fast to hear screams behind the bathroom door. Capt. Christiaan Mangena, a police ballistics expert, described the placement of the bullet holes in the door and concluded, “There was a break between the first shot and the second” – time enough, according to the testimony of three neighbors, for others to hear Steenkamp’s terrified screams.

The defense strategy, by contrast, is to emphasize police bungling, which Pistorius, in a statement read for him by one of his attorneys on day one of the trial, argued had made for a crime scene “contaminated, disturbed and tampered with.” Former police colonel G.S. van Rensburg, among the first to arrive at Pistorius’s house after the shooting, said that at one point he saw a firearms expert handling – without gloves – the handgun Pistorius fired at Steenkamp. “I was very angry,” said van Rensburg, who resigned from the force in December, after his own handling of the bathroom door came under attack.

Originally slated to last three weeks, the trial will recess on April 4 for a week, then continue well into May. Those who know Pistorius well hope that he will be able to get in some track time during the recess. “His salvation is in running,” says Wicksell. “He needs to run again.” Wicksell, who says he’s never seen Pistorius exhibit any of the temper described by courtroom witnesses, finds it painful to see his buddy so isolated. “He’s a very lonely person,” says Wicksell. “He needs people loving him again.”

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