A shot heard around the world
Oscar Pistorius goes on trial for murder on Monday, with a 24-hour TV channel, a live Twitter feed and the world’s media on standby for the court spectacle
On trial: Oscar Pistorius in court last August. Photograph: EPA
When a high court judge ruled last week that the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, which starts on Monday, could be partially televised, and broadcast on a radio news network, he ensured the case would become one of the legal spectacles of the year, if not the decade.
At Pretoria High Court on Tuesday, Justice Dustan Mlambo said it was vital that impoverished South Africans be given a first-hand look at the trial, as the justice system is still perceived as treating the rich with kid gloves while being harsh on poor people.
But the decision also allows a global audience that has become transfixed by what happened in the early hours of February 14th last year the opportunity to watch, in intimate detail, how this drama plays out.
Pistorius, a 27-year-old world-famous Paralympic athlete known as the Blade Runner for his sporting achievements using prosthetic legs, shot dead his 30-year-old girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who was a model, through a locked bathroom door at his upmarket Pretoria home. Although he has admitted to the shooting, Pistorius maintains his innocence in relation to a premeditated murder charge, and claims the incident was a tragic accident.
MultiChoice, South Africa’s pay-per-view television network, has set up a dedicated 24-hour channel to cover the trial, which is expected to last at least three weeks. “The Oscar Pistorius Trial: A Carte Blanche Channel” will feature interviews with legal and forensic experts from around the world, in daytime and evening programming. A live Twitter feed will also be displayed on the TV screen as programming unfolds.
“We are thrilled that the South African judiciary has matured to this ground-breaking decision. It is a seminal moment and will make South African television and legal history,” says George Mazarakis, the executive editor of the channel.
Pistorius’s PR team has also got involved in the media spin. On Tuesday, it created a new Twitter account, @OscarHardTruth, in which, it claims, it will reveal the truth surrounding the trial. By yesterday it had 26,000 followers.
Although it remains to be seen how the state and defence teams argue their cases in court, a statement read out on Pistorius’s behalf during his bail hearing last March outlines his version of events.
According to Pistorius, he woke in the middle of the night after hearing a noise and saw that his balcony door was open. Out of fear he picked up his gun and fired at an unidentified individual behind the door of his toilet cubicle. Steenkamp was shot four times and died at the scene.
“Although I did not have my prosthetic legs on I have mobility on my stumps. I believed that someone had entered my house. I was too scared to switch a light on. I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed,” he said before adding he thought Steenkamp was still in the bed.
Pistorius went on to say he noticed that the bathroom window was open, which made him believe the intruder was in the toilet because the door was closed and he did not see anyone.
Pistorius’ statement, and a poor performance by the chief investigating officer who gave evidence at the bail hearing contributed to the athlete securing his release from custody until the trial ends.
However, since then the state has appointed its top investigation team to build its case. One of the National Prosecution Authority’s top prosecutors, Gerrie Nel, will lead the state in court. He also convinced the court to prosecute Pistorius for premeditated murder. “There is no possible information to support his version that it was a burglar,” Nel said at the bail hearing.
Court documents leaked last week allegedly reveal the state has a number of witnesses who heard a woman scream before and after shots were fired at Pistorius’s house. A neighbour who believes she heard arguing at the gated-community premises in the hours before the murder has also given a statement.
The state will also be seeking to answer a number of questions that cast doubt on Pistorius’s version of events. For example, why did Pistorius not tell Steenkamp to flee before he confronted the danger he perceived? Why did Steenkamp take her mobile phone to the bathroom? And why did Pistorius tell security guards at the complex, who phoned his premises after the shots were fired to inquire after his wellbeing, that everything was fine?
Pistorius has spent his life overcoming obstacles. This is the biggest challenge he has faced so far.