Skip to main content

Is Pistorius being coached?

By Mark O'Mara, CNN Legal Analyst
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 0023 GMT (0823 HKT)
Closing arguments are under way in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius on Thursday, August 7, in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius, the first double amputee runner to compete in the Olympics, is accused of intentionally killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in February 2013. Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder and three weapons charges. It could take weeks for a judge and two lay assessors to consider evidence and testimony presented in court. Closing arguments are under way in the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius on Thursday, August 7, in Pretoria, South Africa. Pistorius, the first double amputee runner to compete in the Olympics, is accused of intentionally killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in February 2013. Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to murder and three weapons charges. It could take weeks for a judge and two lay assessors to consider evidence and testimony presented in court.
HIDE CAPTION
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
Oscar Pistorius murder trial
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: Writer charged murder defendant Pistorius took "acting lessons" for court
  • O'Mara: True, he seemed on-point, but why shouldn't he be? He's trying to show innocence
  • He says in litigation, as in life, we show ourselves in best light. Lawyers indeed coach clients
  • O'Mara: Police, prosecutors, witnesses do it, too. Welcome to litigation. Pistorius is entitled

Editor's note: Mark O'Mara is a CNN Legal Analyst. He is a criminal defense attorney who frequently writes and speaks about issues related to race, guns, and self defense in the context of the American criminal justice system. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- South African newspaper columnist Jani Allan accused Oscar Pistorius of taking "acting lessons" before his testimony at his murder trial. Pistorius has claimed that he accidentally killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp after mistaking her for an intruder to his home in Pretoria.

I have to admit, as a criminal defense attorney, I found his testimony unusually well-focused and on-point as he attempted to accomplish what he needed to. It was this: to convince the judge (there is no jury in this case) that he was acting out of instinct and fear--rather than anger and hatred--when he fired four fatal shots through a locked bathroom door.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Is it not Pistorius' right to figure out how to best present that position to the judge? Is it somehow wrong for a defendant to craft or polish his presentation to positively affect the judge's (or jury's) decision? Yes, it is his right, and no it's not wrong; welcome to the underbelly of litigation. However, it's the same underbelly that exists in business and even in social interactions.

We all learn even as children to speak properly, to "mind our manners" and to "put our best foot forward." Suggesting that people don't prepare for or rehearse important interactions is not just folly; it goes against what we've been taught since we've learned to listen. On that first date, we try to look as good as we can, be as funny as we can, appear as insightful as we can. Before a job interview we study the employer and the industry. Before asking for a raise, we present our value in the warmest light possible.

Good lawyers have spent their careers learning how to present their clients in the most favorable light possible during litigation. It's our responsibility. Criminal defense lawyers learn how to be persuasive and genuine when presenting their side of the story. We are trained to represent clients, any clients, as best we can and to seek the proper result for that client. Prosecutors know how to polish their presentations as well.

Pistorius trial adjourns after 25 days
Pistorius cross-examination highlights
Pistorius trial cross-examination ends

In civil law, when many millions of dollars are on the line, corporate representatives plan for hours, days, weeks, months--even years--to properly present their side of the case. They take part in mock trial, the sole purpose of which is to identify and correct weaknesses in their presentation, to gain insight from how that presentation worked with mock jurors.

Back to the question at hand: Did Pistorius have acting lessons? This will now sound insincere, but I have never, not in 30 years of practice, had a client take "acting lessons" or any other lessons regarding how to testify. But I have spent hours with witnesses and clients reviewing with them how to present themselves and their story in the most compelling and believable way.

But remember this: Law enforcement officers also go through extensive training in how to present themselves in a courtroom, from subtleties as simple as turning toward the jury when answering a question to presenting their testimony in simple, easy-to-understand phrases, to raising and lowering their voices at just the right time. Expert witnesses are paid well for their ability to communicate their testimony effectively and believably to a jury.

So is it any less appropriate for Pistorius to have reviewed his testimony with his lawyers? Would it be wrong if Pistorius had the benefit of a "testimony presentation expert"? The answer is no, it is not inappropriate, as long as Pistorius was telling the truth.

The important question is: Did he present his testimony in a way in which the judge believed he was sincere? Or will the judge believe he was coached and acting? Judges and jurors alike are not easily fooled, and they bring to the courtroom life experiences that prepare them to detect deception and insincerity.

It is also the duty of the advocates on both sides of the story to advise or remind the fact finders that testimony is what it is: prepared, coached, rehearsed and presented as well as possible.

My belief is that Pistorius was absolutely coached. I also believe the judge thinks so, too, and when she weighs Pistorius' testimony, she will take into consideration that it was perhaps too well polished and that it was too well rehearsed. That was, after all, a significant goal of the blistering cross examination, to show that coaching.

I say we trust in fact finders -- in this case the judge, and, in the United States, the jurors -- and understand that they know how to balance the content of a testimony with the sincerity, or lack of sincerity, with which it was delivered.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1424 GMT (2224 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1354 GMT (2154 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT