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  • 15 April 2014, 7:15

Oscar Pistorius' Tears: Genuine Or Contrived?

At times Oscar Pistorius has been strident, almost argumentative in the witness box under cross examination, but more often his voice has trembled with emotion and he has frequently broken down in tears.

The debate has been raging for days in South Africa over whether his breakdowns are genuine, and for the first time the prosecution has suggested it is all an act.

Gerrie Nel, the lead prosecutor, accused the athlete of using his emotional distress "as an escape", after another bout of sobbing during tough questioning caused a pause in the proceedings.

"Why are you emotional now?" Mr Nel asked.

"We're not even talking about Reeva," he said, referring to Reeva Steenkamp, the girlfriend the athlete is accused of deliberately shooting dead.

The implication was clear - Pistorius has resorted to crocodile tears as a way of disrupting the barrage of questions which have poked holes in his defence.

Those reporters inside the court - who are able to see the athlete's face as he gives evidence, not just hear the audio feed - have also questioned the timing of his emotional outbursts.

One reporter said that at the start of the trial, when Pistorius was frequently retching and vomiting as well as sobbing, his body language was so tormented that it could not have been faked.

But the same journalist said that his tears in the witness box have seemed "more convenient" and much harder to interpret.

There is little doubt that the athlete is under a huge amount of pressure in this trial and his memories of the night he shot his girlfriend have to be traumatic.

But if we assume that his emotional outbursts are real and not a tactic, the question remains for many: is he weeping because he killed Ms Steenkamp by accident as he claims - or because he regrets shooting her in a rage as the prosecution says?

South Africans are divided as the trial goes on.

Aubrey Masango, a talk show host for Radio 702, said his "phone ins" about the case have shown that the population is largely split by gender, not race or social class, with women most likely to consider the athlete guilty and doubt his sincerity in the witness box.

"He deserves an Oscar for his crying," is something Masango says he has heard from female callers again and again.     

The sudden changes in his demeanour under cross examination have also confused those watching the trial.

Pistorius has often been pedantic and combative in his responses to Gerrie Nel's questions, pointing out tiny details that the prosecutor has got wrong.

His remarkable composure during those exchanges - when he has sounded more like a defence lawyer than a defendant - is in stark contrast to his moments gulping back the tears.

In the absence of a jury, his emotional outbursts - real or otherwise - should not influence the verdict. Judge Thokozile Masipa is trained to disregard the tears of the accused and focus on his words.

But her assessment of his true emotional state is still important because she needs to ensure that Pistorius is in a fit state to give evidence in his defence. 

Several times she has halted proceedings to give the athlete time to compose himself, always asking whether he is ready to continue before resuming the trial.

Sky's legal analyst in Pretoria, Llewellyn Curlewis says the judge's "reading" of his sobbing could also play a role much later in the case, during sentencing.

"It clearly creates a possible mitigating argument regarding remorse," Mr Curlewis says.

"After so many emotional outbursts, any human being - including the judge - might accept he was remorseful for what transpired," he adds. 

But that brings us back to the question at the heart of the debate over the trial in South Africa - is the athlete crying for Reeva or for himself?

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