State prosecutor Gerrie Nel has become a global cult hero and a rare poster boy for South Africa’s beleaguered public sector through his fiery cross-examination of Oscar Pistorius and the mauling of expert witnesses.
Forensic geologist Roger Dixon is a clever man, but when he slinked out of the witness box on Thursday after two days of withering cross-examination at the hands of South Africa’s favourite “pit bull” prosecutor, he looked a little less smart.
“I’m fine,” he said. “Today was a breeze.”
Well, perhaps when compared to the previous day, when this accomplished university scientist was forced to admit on the stand that he was a “layman” who had no training in sound or light measurement, nor ballistics, nor pathology, yet testified on all these things.
“What does a pit bull do? They bite,” Dixon joked as he left court.
Asked if the bite hurt, he replied: “No” before adding, “Of course I’m going to have a lot more beer tonight.”
Nel, already known in South Africa before this case, has excelled in Pistorius’s murder trial, thanks to his sharp eye for detail and his take-no-prisoners approach.
His interrogations have been so searing that they prompted at least one complaint to South Africa’s Human Rights Commission – which found Nel had no case to answer.
And Judge Thokozile Masipa has twice had to interrupt proceedings to say “restrain yourself, Mr Nel” when he has been tearing into witnesses.
It was murder-accused Pistorius who suffered the brunt of the prosecutor’s fury.
“You made a ‘mistake’?” Nel demanded, almost shouting at Pistorius just minutes into a cross-examination of the defendant’s claims he killed Reeva Steenkamp by accident.
“You killed a person, that’s what you did! You shot and killed her, won’t you take responsibility for that?”
Then, the 10 court television screens suddenly lit up in red as Nel screened a graphic picture of Steenkamp’s blood-clotted head – a shock move even for the adversarial approach of South Africa’s justice system.
“That’s it,” Nel said, turning to Pistorius. “Have a look there. I know you don’t want to because you don’t want to take responsibility”, drawing sobs and an angry retort from the sprinter.
“I don’t have to look at a picture. I was there,” Pistorius said.
Theatrics aside, Nel’s interrogation showed up several inconsistencies in the athlete’s version of the killing in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day last year.
Under examination, the sprinter even appeared to shift his claim of self-defence, based on his belief that Steenkamp was an intruder, to a claim he accidentally pulled the trigger.
“Your version is so improbable that nobody would ever think it’s reasonably, possibly true it’s so impossible,” Nel thundered.
“Your version … is a lie.”
Nel’s pugilistic style has won him admirers in South Africa, where public sector workers are often regarded as corrupt and incompetent.
Many are not only exhilarated by his performance, but also relieved.
At the start of the trial, South Africans watched in awe as high-earning defence lawyer Barry Roux exposed shoddy police work, and seemed destined to confirm suspicions that justice in South Africa can – at least in part – be bought with the help of a top lawyer.
But as Nel has proved his mettle, South Africa’s much-beleaguered justice system has earned wider public respect.
His performance showed skilled people still choose to work for the state despite more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.
He had already earned the moniker of “Pit bull”, or “Bulldog”, for his tenacious questioning before this trial came along.
The skilled Nel made his name for jailing ex-Interpol head and South Africa’s former police chief Jackie Selebi in 2010 for taking bribes from an organised crime network.
His tireless prosecution of the politically connected Selebi earned him an award from the International Association of Prosecutors, but also the apparent ire of influential government officials.
A group of armed police arrested Nel in front of his family in 2008, only for the charges of fraud, perjury and “defeating the ends of justice” to be dropped.
His reputation was sealed when his respected elite crime-fighting squad the Scorpions was closed down shortly after President Jacob Zuma took power, after investigating Zuma for fraud.
Nel, whose age cannot be officially confirmed, reportedly has more than 30 years’ experience, and coaches boys in wrestling when he’s not combating criminals in court.
“He has endless patience and never loses his temper. The children love him,” a student’s mother told an Afrikaans-language Sunday paper, Rapport.
Witnesses for the defence cannot say the same.