Legal titans square up for murder case world is watching

03 March 2014 - 13:02 By Sabelo Skiti and Prega Govender
South African Prosecutor Gerrie Nel attends the bail hearing of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria.
South African Prosecutor Gerrie Nel attends the bail hearing of South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria.
Image: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

There is very little that unsettles Gerrie Nel. The veteran prosecutor was stormed by about 20 policemen at the height of the Jackie Selebi case in 2008.

GERRIE NEL

He was arrested in front of his children, but the charges were dropped within days.

Deep suspicions remain that his arrest wasa malicious act to scupper the Selebi investigation. But Nel still got his man and the corrupt former national police commissioner was convicted and sentenced to 15 years.

"He's fearless," said Nel's former boss, Vusi Pikoli, under whom he had worked at the now disbanded elite crime-fighting unit, the Scorpions.

"We knew we were dealing with organised crime and dangerous people. Even when he was arrested it never deterred him."

Nel has a reputation for aiming big and reaching his goals. "Tenacious" and "thorough" are among the descriptions former colleagues use to describe his style and work.

In a career spanning 30 years, he has collected some impressive scalps, including kingpins in major crime syndicates as well as arrogant and corrupt politicians.

Pikoli said he first met Nel in 2005 when he became the national director of public prosecutions. Nel was the go-to guy for tough or high profile cases.

"He struck me as a very passionate prosecutor. He's dedicated, very committed and patient," said Pikoli.

He was a junior prosecutor in the Chris Hani murder trial in the '90s and has prosecuted several other high-profile murder cases.

Another former colleague, Sipho Ngwema, who was a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said: "Gerrie is a very ambitious person. He doesn't like to lose and is a very shrewd fellow. He thrives in conditions where he is going to be the centre of attention and have good competition. That brings the best out of him."

Ngwema said Nel was fiercely loyal to those who worked closely with him. He had seen Nel take strain only twice: once was when a member of his team, Cornwell Tshavhungwa, then his deputy, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to six years' imprisonment on fraud and drunk driving charges.

The conviction was later overturned and Tshavhungwa is back practising law.

"He really believed in the fellow. Gerrie took pride in that he was mentoring this fellow, who was well on his way to being the best in the country."

Pikoli said Nel's prosecution of Selebi showed his tenacious and calculating mind.

"He will painstakingly take a suspect in a thorough cross-examination. He knows where he is going all the time."

When asked how Nel unwinds, Ngwema said: "I'm sure he's playing a lot of golf these days in preparation for this trial." That is when the fitness fanatic isn't wrestling, another of his favourite sports.

On the eve of the Pistorius trial, Ngwema said, he had no doubt that Nel had "all his ducks in a row".

"By now he most probably knows that docket better than the investigators. There is no aspect of that case that is going to escape Gerrie."

BARRY ROUX

ADVOCATE Barry Roux SC does not get out of bed for less than R40000 a day.

It was his cross-examination of detective Hilton Botha (now retired) in Pistorius's bail application last year that thrust him into the public eye.

He got Botha, the lead detective in the case, to concede that the police had missed crucial forensic evidence at the scene.

One journalist likened Roux's cross-examination to watching a baby seal being clubbed to death.

Stephnie Daly, an attorney and close friend of Roux's, said he was the "most ethical and honest person" she knew. She said his cross-examination of witnesses was "brilliant".

"It came from the days before you had insight into the docket, not having witness statements at your disposal. He had to, through cross-examination, discover inconsistencies in testimonies. If you want to know who he is, speak to his gardener, the petrol attendant and the waitress who serves him."

She said Roux was a stickler for punctuality and would always be in court at least an hour before proceedings started.

"If he thinks that his client will not be successful, he will always be honest and upfront with the client.

"He does not regard himself as one of the top advocates - he just sees himself as an advocate doing his job."

Roux spends most of his time reading court records. He is highly regarded as a sharp and astute legal mind and is sought after for his experience and courtroom skill.

One of Johannesburg's leading law firms, BDK Attorneys, had also roped in Roux in the past to assist with cases.

Piet du Plessis, managing partner at BDK Attorneys, said: "We've briefed him on numerous cases. He's someone regarded as a top senior advocate and is very, very experienced in criminal law."

He does not come cheap.

"He is definitely not working for less than R40000 per day - probably charging R50000 per day," said one advocate.

Two of Roux's previous clients are Johannesburg dentist Casper Greeff, who was convicted of murdering his wife, and businessman Dave King.

However, he is said to describe himself as someone who is "very plain" and is known to be extremely media shy.

He gets on his bicycle to relax. Roux has been cycling about 100km every weekend since September while working to prepare for the trial. The legal eagle, who has been a senior counsel for about 14 years, is taking part in the 109km Cape Argus cycle tour in Cape Town on Sunday next week. He also plays golf when he has the time.

Yesterday, he was hard at work putting the finishing touches to his plan for day one of the Pistorius trial tomorrow.

The former Department of Justice employee has come a long way since he joined the Johannesburg Bar in 1982.

The Pistorius case has thrust this ex-prosecutor firmly on to the world stage.

And he is ready to play - at a price, of course. - Additional reporting by Pearlie Joubert

Killings: what SA law says

PREMEDITATED MURDER: Intentionally killing another person. There must have been a sense of planning in executing the murder. If found guilty, the accused will face a minimum sentence of life imprisonment. However, the court may depart from this and hand down a shorter sentence depending on circumstances.

CULPABLE HOMICIDE: Unlawfully and negligently causing the death of another person. This would normally attract a lesser sentence, either shorter prison time or no prison time.

PRIVATE SELF-DEFENCE: "Would a man or woman in the same situation have acted in the same way?" It can only be self-defence when an action was taken to protect one's own life or that of another person.

PUTATIVE SELF-DEFENCE: When an accused believes that his life and property were under attack, but they were in fact not, and he or she uses force against a person who is not actually the aggressor.

This is when an accused may have believed that he was under threat when he took the action that led to the killing of the other person. - Dominic Skelton and Isaac Mahlangu

Follow TymonSmith at the trial on @OscarsTrial

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