It’s the case that’s making waves across the Atlantic: a dual Olympian and Paralympian, a national hero, the main character in a tale to inspire generations to come … and a murderer?
Oscar Pistorius, in short, has lived somewhat of a Cinderella story; at 11 months old, both of his legs were amputated below the knee. For many, such a hindrance would discourage many physical activities, let alone competition in athletic activities.
But with prosthetic legs in place, the South African grew up to become a champion at the Paralympics, a worldwide multi-sport event much like the Olympics, but for those with a range of physical disabilities. He even went so far as to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, becoming the first amputee runner to compete in any Olympic games.
He returned to South Africa a national hero and one of the most famous athletes in the nation’s history.
But all this glory came to a halt on the morning of Valentine’s Day in 2013 when his girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp, was shot dead in his Pretoria apartment. He admitted that he had shot her but claimed that he had mistaken her for an intruder.
During the events of the trial, however, details began to emerge telling a slightly different story. A neighbor reported hearing terrified screams before the gunshots the morning of the murder. An ex-girlfriend of Pistorius’s testified about his short temper, claiming he once shot a gun out of a sunroof after being pulled over by police.
This same woman has since given out-of-court interviews saying that he pinched and bit her, was possessive and jealous and would get so angry that she would hide his gun from him for her own protection. Text messages from the weeks before the murder between Pistorius and Steenkamp were read to the court, with Steenkamp having said how she was scared of Pistorius and how he tended to “snap” on her.
Steenkamp had been shot three times, not just once. And while Pistorius claimed that the high crime rate in South African cities led to him to be paranoid about intruders, his house was in an exclusive gated community, where crime rates tend to be significantly lower than those in the rest of the city. A psychiatric evaluation of Pistorius concluded that he had no mental illness that would cause him to be mentally incapacitated during the shooting of Steenkamp.
Since the end of apartheid there is no longer a jury system in South Africa, and on Sept. 12 Judge Thokozile Masiba found Pistorius guilty, but not of intentionally murdering Steenkamp. Instead, he was found guilty of negligent homicide. Negligent homicide is comparable to what we in the U.S. call manslaughter, where it is acknowledged that it is the defendant’s fault that the victim is dead, but the reasoning and circumstances behind the death were not intentional or malicious. Masiba’s verdict states that lawyers were unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that premeditation was involved in Steenkamp’s death.
South Africa is split over the verdict, with some saying it was correct and others saying Pistorius should have been charged with more serious crimes. The trial is receiving heavy media attention in the U.K. and U.S. as well, where opinions have shifted more against the verdict.
Despite all the facts that seem to point toward a jealous Pistorius losing his temper and subsequently killing Steenkamp, it does seem true that there was not quite enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing was done maliciously.
Whatever the case, there is still hope for those who wish to see Pistorius pay the price for his deeds: his sentencing, which will be held in October, could still lead to him spending at least five years in jail. Steenkamp may not have received the full amount of justice that she was due, but her killer will, at the very least, have ample time to sit and think about how his actions destroyed the lives of an innocent woman and her family.
Commentary by Erin McCormick