Judgment Day for the Blade Runner
He was the child who endured a double leg amputation before his first birthday yet claimed Paralympic Gold before his 18th. He was the South African athlete who defied his disability to become the most marketable sportsman in his country’s history. He was a record breaker. He was a history maker. He was the Blade Runner.
And on the morning of February 14, 2012, he was a killer.
The sensational rise and fall of Oscar Pistorius will come to a head on September 11 when Judge Thokozile Masipa delivers her verdict to conclude a trial that has held a nation captive since March.
Over the course of six months, the court has heard how, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day two years ago, Pistorius shot through a toilet door in a bathroom at his home in Pretoria and killed his girlfriend, 29-year-old model Reeva Steenkamp. These facts are undisputed.The trial, and indeed Pistorius’ fate, however, hinges on contextualising how and why he fired his gun that tragic night.
Here, Esquire details the key moments of the case and assesses what awaits Pistorius, whatever verdict is delivered.
“Johan, please, please, please come to my house. Please. I shot Reeva. I thought she was an intruder…” These were the words that a weeping Oscar Pistorius spoke to his uncle on the phone as he cradled the lifeless body of Reeva Steenkamp. Though he didn’t know it at the time, the content of this panicked call would go on to form the pillar of the South African’s defence during his murder trial.
For the duration of the court proceedings, the athlete has vehemently maintained that Steenkamp’s killing was an accident. A defence that lawyer Barry Roux sought to compartmentalise into two distinct halves: firstly, self-defence, in which Pistorius took reasonable means to defend himself against a genuinely held fear of an attack by an intruder; secondly, “involuntary action”, that he pulled the trigger reflexively.
The Pistorius version
While the athlete has had trouble maintaining a consistent story during his cross-examination, his claim is essentially predicated on the following version of events: in the early hours of February 14, having struggled to sleep, he got up and, without donning his prosthetic limbs, went to bring in a fan from his bedroom balcony. Here, he said he heard noises coming from the bathroom.
Believing that intruders were in his home, a terrified Pistorius grabbed his gun and – assuming Steenkamp was still asleep on the bed, albeit on the opposite side than usual – approached the bathroom. Hearing what he described as a “woody” noise in the toilet cubicle, Pistorius then fired four bullets through its door. Realising that it could be Steenkamp in there, he rushed out on to the balcony, screamed for help, strapped on his prosthetic limbs and then broke down the toilet door with a cricket bat. It was there where he found Steenkamp slumped by the toilet with fatal gunshot wounds.
“They are so mutually exclusive, that they are mutually destructive”
Prosecuter Gerrie Nel on Pistorius’ apparent use of two defences
Spearheaded by the relentless questioning of lead prosecutor Gerrie ‘The Pitbull’ Nel, the state has resolutely aimed to prove that the athlete intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend after a heated argument, and as a result, are lobbying for a verdict of nothing less than pre-meditated murder. Nel insists that both defences used by Barry Roux and his team, whether self-defence or accidental death, are not only contradictory but unsupported by the facts and has used all the evidence at the prosecution’s disposal – including emails, text messages and video recordings –to paint the picture of a man who is jealous, temperamental, harbours a love of firearms and -perhaps most importantly – prone to fits of rage.
He meticulously picked apart Pistorius’ version, pinpointing inconsistencies or illogical sequences in even the most minor details – the position of the fans by the terrace door, the light on the stereo, the location of the duvet on the floor, the deceased’s jeans, the food in her stomach – to show that Steenkamp was in fact awake up until the time she was shot. With every explanation, Nel accused an often weeping Pistorius of “tailoring his evidence”.
Nel needs to have convinced Judge Masipa that Pistorius’ version is, in his own words, “so improbable nobody would ever think it was possible”. Why, for instance, didn’t Pistorius seek to locate Steenkamp before approaching the bathroom? Why did he call the estate manager before the police or emergency services? Why did he walk around with his gun after learning Steenkamp was behind the door? Why would Steenkamp close and then lock the door to the toilet, especially if the lights didn’t work? All questions that cast doubt on the claim of mistaken identity.
The likely outcome
The worst-case scenario for Oscar Pistorius is if Judge Masipa decides that he did know Reeve Steenkamp was in the bathroom and that he did mean to kill her. This would result in a life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years. It would also be served in one of the country’s toughest prisons.
Akin to manslaughter, this verdict will be passed down if the judge rules that Pistorius was “negligent” but did not intend to kill Steenkamp, believing there to be someone else behind the door. The sentence here would be at the discretion of the judge and while there is no minimum term, a custodial sentence of 15 years is the likely outcome.
The sentence will be delivered on September 11.