Spellbound by trial and errors
Oscar Pistorius with Steenkamp, whom he is accused of murdering. photographs: siphiwe sibeko/reuters and thembani makhubele/reuters
Bailed: Oscar Pistorius in court this week
The shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius has both shocked and enthralled South Africans, sparking a national debate about domestic violence, crime and guns
‘Next to Nelson Mandela, he was the most famous South African in the world, even better known than our president [Jacob Zuma],” says Greg Espey, an accountant in Cape Town. “He made us feel good about ourselves at a time when our country is experiencing a lot of problems. Now, what has come out in the bail hearing is just very sad and embarrassing. Who knows what the truth is, because so little of the hard forensic evidence has come out at this stage.”
Espey’s was a widely held view in the days after Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria home in the early hours of February 14th. When, after 24 hours in police custody, Pistorius was charged with premeditated murder, the public found it difficult to comprehend. While there was sympathy for Steenkamp and her family – messages of condolences have streamed in – there was also an initial groundswell of support for Pistorius, whose life was unravelling in front of a watching world.
The Paralympic gold medallist, known as the Blade Runner, had been revered in South Africa since 2004 because of his successes on the race track using carbon-fibre blades to run. Then at the Olympic Games in London last summer, the national hero went global as the first double amputee to compete in the able-bodied competition. He has since become a multimillionaire through endorsement deals with some of the world’s biggest brands.
In a country still divided along racial lines, South Africans from all backgrounds supported the young athlete whose strength of character and determination propelled him to achieve the unexpected.
But as the bail hearing unfolded, doubts grew about Pistorius’s claims that the shooting had been a tragic accident caused by his fear of being burgled. The South African public is spellbound by the case.
Barry Bateman, a reporter for the South African online news feed Eyewitness News, and one of the few media representatives entitled to sit in the small courtroom where Pistorius’s bail application took place, started posting messages on Twitter about the hearing on Monday. By Thursday afternoon his Twitter following had risen from less than 60,000 people to more than 128,000, with 50,000 of those signing up in one 24-hour period.
During the bail hearing the defence team for 26-year-old Pistorius maintained that their client woke in the middle of the night and mistook Steenkamp for an intruder in his bathroom. He panicked, grabbed his gun and opened fire out of fear.
If Pistorius had wanted to kill his girlfriend he did not need a locked toilet or bathroom to do it, his lawyer Barry Roux said at his bail application on Thursday. “He could do it anywhere,” he said, rejecting the state’s allegation that his client committed premeditated murder.
The state, however, maintains it has forensic evidence and witnesses to prove otherwise. One witness statement introduced in court said an unnamed neighbour had heard continuous arguing coming from Pistorius’s house before the incident occurred. This was followed by gunfire, more screams and then more gunfire.
Gerrie Nel, the prosecutor, said Pistorius knew exactly who was in the bathroom and, as such, his actions were those of a cold-blooded killer. “He prepared. He armed himself. The motive was, he wanted to kill. He fired four shots. Three hit Steenkamp. It is those cold facts that make this a premeditated murder,” Nel alleged.
On Tuesday South Africa’s Cape Times published a story in which it claimed that Pistorius has in the past month applied for six gun licences, for weapons ranging from pump-action shotguns to a Smith Wesson revolver. His brushes with the law, and his alleged history of anger and jealousy towards love rivals, have begun to shape public opinion.
But as the week wore on it appeared that Pistorius’s defence team was gaining the upper hand over the state in the battle to convince Desmond Nair, the magistrate hearing their arguments, about the veracity of their respective claims.
During cross-examination on Wednesday, the chief investigating officer in the case, Hilton Botha, conceded he might have contaminated the crime scene by entering it without protective clothing.
Pistorius’s lawyer also forced Botha to amend his testimony in relation to the proximity of the witness who heard screaming and gunshots coming from Pistorius’s house. “The poor quality of evidence presented by the chief investigating officer exposed disastrous shortcomings in the state’s case,” Roux said.
Then on a Thursday morning a bombshell was dropped into the courtroom with the news that Botha was facing seven attempted-murder charges relating to a shooting in 2011.
By that evening South Africa’s police commissioner, Gen Riah Phiyega, had replaced Botha with Lt Gen Vinesh Moonoo, who would take over for the remainder of the investigation. Phiyega assured a stunned public that Moonoo was the police’s “top detective” and that he was facing no criminal charges. The Pistorius case “shall receive attention at the national level” and Moonoo will “gather a team of highly skilled and experienced detectives”, the commissioner said.
The bail hearing also sparked debate about ongoing cultural issues in South Africa. Domestic violence against women, widespread private gun ownership and high levels of crime are all central themes.
Greg Espey says the case has crystallised these problems for South Africans. “What happened has thrown up all sorts of questions around whether it is okay to use a gun to protect yourself in your own home, or how far the scourge of domestic violence reaches in South Africa.
“We all know it, but times like this really drive home the fact that we have a serious problem when it comes to domestic violence and crime. It makes us sad as a nation that we have to contend with these social illnesses.”
The scale of these problems is enormous. More than 64,000 sexual offences, including rape, were reported in South Africa in the year to April 2012, and domestic violence against women is common. The rape figures could be much higher, as research suggests that only a fraction of sexual assaults are reported.
The latest crime statistics, for 2011, show there were more than 15,000 murders and nearly 250,000 burglaries that year. South Africans spend billions on security: Pistorius’s habit of sleeping with a gun beneath his bed is not unusual.
Indeed, Pistorius said in his defence that he had received death threats in the past and that he believed people were crime targets in their own homes. He suggested in his affidavit that this fear of being burgled caused him to open fire and put four bullets through a closed bathroom door without knowing who was behind it.
Cases of fatal shootings in South Africa based on mistaken identity include one in 2004, when a retired international rugby player took his teenage daughter for a thief and shot her dead as she was sneaking out of the family home at night to visit her boyfriend. In December last year a man in Johannesburg accidentally shot dead his young daughter after spotting an intruder downstairs in his house.
Was the shooting of Steenkamp a mistake or the act of a man, who, after arguing with his lover, pulled out a gun and intentionally shot her dead? At this stage we know what transpired in Pistorius’s home between 2am and 3am on February 14th. It is for the coming trial to establish why it occurred.
The trial will most likely be held in the high court, according to the lawyer Jacques Louw, because of Pistorius’s high profile and the seriousness of the charge.
Pistorius’s fate will rest in the hands of a high-court judge, who will have two assessors at his or her side, as South Africa does not use jury trials.
“The trial will proceed in a very similar way to a criminal trial in the UK, as the legal systems have comparable procedures. After both sides put their cases across, the state going first, the judge will make his ruling.
“I’d imagine the hearing will take place sometime later this year, again due to its high-profile nature,” says Louw, referring to the fact that murder cases in South Africa can often take years to come to trial.”
The outcome of the bail hearing – it ended yesterday in Pistorius’s favour – will not affect how the trial is dealt with by the courts, he adds. “There is a lot more evidence to come than was revealed over the past week in Pretoria magistrate’s court.”