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Bail or months in a tough prison? Judge to rule on Pistorius case

Stephane De Sakutin / AFP - Getty Images

South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius appears at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria on Feb. 19. His bail hearing continues Wednesday.

A South African judge will hear more arguments Wednesday before deciding whether Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius should be denied bail and sent to a prison where other inmates have complained about ghastly conditions.

A day after prosecutors and the defense presented clashing accounts of how and why Pistorius fatally shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, the two sides will spar over where he should spend the months before a trial.

Pistorius arrived in court Wednesday wearing a black suit and blue tie. Prosecutors alleged that a witness heard a "non-stop" argument coming from the Paralympian's home before the shooting.

South African legal experts say that after hearing from witnesses, the magistrate will be asked to evaluate the strength of the prosecution's case and consider whether the double-amputee is a flight risk, a danger to anyone, or likely to intimidate witnesses or destroy evidence.

"Personally, my view is he should get bail because he's got a fixed permanent residence, has no previous convictions, and owns assets in the jurisdiction of the court. He's disabled and easily recognizable," said Steve Tuson, a law professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

But bail could be a tough sell since the judge provisionally entered a charge of premeditated murder after Tuesday's hearing — where Pistorius claimed he fired into his bathroom in a panic over a possible prowler, while prosecutors alleged he calmly put on his artificial legs before he stalked Steenkamp to the bathroom to kill her.

Unless the magistrate, Desmond Nair, downgrades the charge after Wednesday's hearing, or the defense convinces him there are extraordinary reasons Pistorius should remain free, the trail-blazing runner is headed to lockup.

Since his arrest, Pistorius, 26, has been held at a local police station, but that's unusual and it's expected he would be transferred to Pretoria's central prison to await further proceedings, experts said.

"It's not too pleasant," Marius du Toit, a South African defense lawyer who has also been a prosecutor and magistrate, said of the central prison.

"I've represented people from overseas who were incarcerated in our prisons. One lost 20 kilos because the food and conditions are so bad. He said, 'I've been in prisons all over Europe and I've never seen anything like this.'"

A South African court officially charged superstar runner Oscar Pistorius with killing his unarmed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, alleging he shot her three times through a locked bathroom door. NBC's Michelle Kosinski reports.

Two weeks before Pistorius' arrest, six inmates from the Pretoria prison petitioned the High Court to improve conditions, painting a grim picture of daily life behind its walls.

Their complaints included up to three inmates in single-person cells, dirty mattresses with no bedding, sweltering heat and poor ventilation, no time outside, rampant drug dealing and violent threats from fellow prisoners, according to the Pretoria News.

The court has not ruled on the application, which the government planned to oppose, the newspaper said.

Du Toit said that Pistorius' high profile and disability could be grounds for some kind of accommodation if he is sent to prison, but added that officials will be loathe to give him special treatment because the decision to hold him at the police station before the bail hearing was questioned.

If he does wind up behind bars, he could be there for months before a trial and verdict -- which is delivered by a judge since jury trial were done away with in 1969.

Prosecutors and the defense team will be given time to marshal evidence before a trial date is set in stone, Tuson said.

Before the constitutional changes that accompanied the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, prosecutors could keep most of their case under wraps until trial. Now, they have to share all their evidence, Tuson said.

While U.S. trials are often delayed by endless haggling over what evidence is admissible at trial, in South Africa those decisions are made by the judge during the trial.

Tuson said the timeline from charge to verdict normally depends on the complexity of the case, the number of witnesses and how crowded the court docket is. Because the country's judicial system is so clogged, run-of-the-mill cases can face "horrible delays," he said.

Pistorius, however, could be fast-tracked due to the high-profile nature of the case. Tuson predicted the whole thing will be over in six months.

"Because of the media coverage, the state will push for this cases to be held as quickly as possible," du Toit said.

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