PRETORIA, South Africa -- When you become "the accused," as dogged prosecutor Gerrie Nel refers to Oscar Pistorius in the courtroom, you forfeit some things even pre-verdict.
It's not just that you have to forgo what you might have wished to do and go to the courthouse day upon day, with Friday marking Day 29 in the Pistorius murder trial. It's that once you get there, the space is gone.
We all know the space. We're all accustomed to the space. It's the space between the famous and the non-famous, the space sometimes filled with security or police, or arranged by security or police. In some cases, of course, the space can feature barricades. In most cases, the space manifests itself in walled-off mansions or considerable fences or gated communities such as the one in which Pistorius resided until an awful night in February 2013. Sometimes the space is just a matter of aura, of the intimidation the non-famous can feel in the presence of the famous.
When the space is gone, it can be jarring.
That's the overriding first impression from two days in the North Gauteng High Court on Madiba Street in the South African capital. It's that the space is gone. It's the absence of this space more than the testimony, which has been lodged in intricate Thursday-Friday detail about trajectory and deflection and striation the strength of door wood and Black Talon bullets. It's the absence of this space even more than the presence of Mr. Nel, that pit bull or bull terrier or bullmastiff or whatever, although he certainly can flummox most any defense witness as he laps onto the shores of indignation without quite getting there.
Defense ballistics expert Thomas "Wollie" Wolmarans, on Friday: "I disagree..."
Nel: "I know that you want to disagree..."
Wolmarans: "It's not that I want to disagree, My Lady. I disagree."
Still, there's something more telltale in the margins of the trial, at the beginnings and the ends of the breaks for lunch or otherwise. At those times, it's clear that Pistorius, through his actions either accidental or intentional when he shot to death his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has relinquished another layer of privacy. A courtroom novice might marvel at the courtroom intimacy.
When Pistorius' lovely aunt comes over to give him a hug and chat with him near the close of the lunch break, they're so close -- three rows away -- that you pretty much have to look away out of politeness. When he unburies his face, looks up from the dock toward the witness stand and yawns at precisely 2:15 p.m., there's no hiding it. You actually could touch with a 10-foot pole the inward family moments when his sister Aimee attempts to comfort him.
These are obvious courtroom sights if you think about it, but that doesn't make them any less affecting. Everyone here is bunched together even if there's a clear, invisible barrier between the families of "the accused" and "the deceased." Sometimes, family members chat with the reporters whose routine workplace this has become since March 3, most of the faces familiar with each other in this temporary ecosystem. Defense attorney Barry Roux, now a face known all the way around the 24 time zones, walks the hallway unassumingly and smiles out on the sidewalk as he tries to navigate a small clot of the public out to make his way home. Even an entirely new face, two rows behind the families, might look weary enough that just before the post-lunch resumption the aunt turns around, smiles and asks, "Tired?"
By afternoon on Friday, just after resumption, only 95 people occupied the courtroom, counting Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, the two assessors who flank her (and will assist with the verdict), the courtroom workers up front, the lawyering teams, the security men in various uniforms, the 11 people in the back row marked "Public" and the witness, standing with his international ballistics background, his thick gray hair and his mild frustration at Nel's questions about Wolmarans' procedures.
Nel: "All I want you to do is answer the question."
Wolmarans: "I think I have."
Nel: "No, you haven't."
Wolmarans: "I have."
On matters from the boards Wolmarans used to depict how bullets splinter after impact, to a discussion of Steenkamp's position behind the locked toilet door when Pistorius shot her, Nel seemed to pepper Wolmarans just enough to get him to concede that the state has a plausible case. Then Nel asked for adjournment, bringing the end of the day, which tends to come around 3 p.m.
Then, Pistorius makes his usual trip from the exit door straight through the gate to a waiting 4x4 on Madiba Street, and the on-looking crowd by the second Friday in May is smaller than imagined. It includes about a dozen camerapeople, sure, some on ladders, of course, and a sidewalk human blob of about 30. Everybody waits, then watches and photographs, the hubbub slight. The trial has gone into its wane, down to its final defense witnesses, with Wolmarans set to continue on Monday once he brings along some photos Nel requested. As Pistorius reaches the curb, for a moment he's right in the middle of strangers, close enough to touch, incongruous for a guy who lived behind walls.