The Record-Making Olympian
South African Oscar Pistorius had both legs amputated halfway between his knees and ankles when he was 11 months old, due to fibular hemimelia, which is the absence or shortening of the fibula. He made headlines as the “Blade Runner” when he became the first athlete to compete in sprint events in both the Paralympic games as a below-knee amputee AND the Olympic games as an able-bodied competitor. In 2011, after winning a legal dispute claiming that his artificial limbs gave him an unfair advantage over his counterparts, he became the first amputee to win a medal in an able-bodied world track event.
The Accused Murderer
Then he made headlines again on Valentines Day in 2013 when he shot and killed his girlfriend of four months, model Reeva Steenkamp. While he admitted he was the one that pulled the trigger (four times), he stated he thought he was firing upon an intruder hiding in the bathroom in his home. He was found guilty of culpable homicide defined as "the unlawful negligent killing of a human being".
He was given a prison sentence of 5 years, but served less than a year when he was released to serve the remaining 4+ years under house arrest. An appeal in December 2015 overturned the original verdict and convicted him of murder. His sentencing will take place on July 6th of this year.
Details of the Murder
Pistorius says that he and his girlfriend had been asleep in his bed when he got up a little after 3 am to go get a fan off the balcony. He came back to hear noises in the bathroom and thought it was an intruder who had climbed in through an open window. He grabbed his gun, and shouted to Steenkamp to call the police as he fired into the small cubicle housing the toilet. He claimed he was afraid and felt vulnerable because he was not wearing his prosthetics (as he recently demonstrated by walking around the courtroom without them). When she didn’t answer, he realized it could have been her in the bathroom. The door was locked and he broke it down with a cricket bat.
He reports she was alive, slumped over the toilet when he entered, and he carried her down the stairs. Pathology reports show she was shot in the hip, arm, hand and head. The bullet in her head was the last to hit her, and was deemed “incapacitating and probably almost instantly fatal.”
There are a handful of questions that the prosecution and defense argued over during the course of the trial and in the appeal that followed.
- On the night of the shooting, did the couple argue? Pistorius claimed they ate dinner, watched television then went to bed and had been sleeping for hours. Autopsy reports suggest Steenkamp had eaten as recent at two hours before, implying she was awake when Pistorius claimed she was asleep. The prosecution has testimony of neighbors who hear shouting and screaming from the house. The defense maintains it was Pistorius, realizing what he had done.
- Why didn’t he call the police? Pistorius says he called a man name Johan Stander, an administration of his gated community, and Netcare, a private medical service. He also spoke with a security guard, whom record’s show Pistorius called first. Pistorius told the guard “everything was fine” but was crying. The guard showed up as Pistorius was carrying Steenkamp down the stairs.
- How much police tampering was at the scene? Hilton Botha, lead detective on the case, admitted to investigating the home without proper footwear, losing ammunition and making assumptions that turned out to be untrue. There were also footprints on the bathroom door, determined to be from police shoes as they walked on the fallen door in and out of the bathroom.
- Was Pistorius wearing his prostheses, indicating that he took the time to put them on before shooting her and therefore showing premeditation? Or was he really walking on his stumps in a panic? Members from both teams of lawyers took turns with the cricket bat, swinging at the door with different angles.
- Why was Steenkamp in a locked bathroom with her phone at 3 a.m.? Were the couple fighting and she was scared of Pistorius? Was she hiding from him or a suspected intruder? Or was it common practice for her to lock the door as it is with many couples? Was she trying to text or call for help, or was she simply unable to sleep and browsing on her phone?
- Why did Pistorius shoot four times and/or not fire a warning shot? The prosecution claims he was intentionally trying to kill the person behind the door while the defense maintains he was afraid for his life.
Motive and Personality
The big question was/is if he killed her on purpose, WHY did he do so? The prosecution argues he killed her after an argument. Would a simple argument be enough to drive this man to killing? Looking into his past, both good and bad, could provide some clues for both sides of the argument.
- A former girlfriend of Pistorius, Samantha Taylor, said she had been in a similar situation with him once when she spent the night at his house. He has heard the bathroom window being hit with something, woke her up to ask if she had heard it, then grabbed his gun to go investigate.
- Taylor also said that there were several other instances where he woke he because he thought he had heard a noise.
- Family members of Steenkamp said she would marry him if he asked.
- He has been in trouble for inappropriate gun use twice in the past, once when he fired a shot out of the sunroof of his car after an argument with a police officer because he was angry.
The appeal was held in front of five Supreme court judges who unanimously found enough evidence to throw out the lesser verdict of culpable homicide and charge him with murder. One judge stated that Pistorius should have realized firing four hollow-tip bullets into a small cubicle with no where for a person to hide would undoubtedly kill anyone who was in there, whether he thought it was an intruder or actually knew it was Steenkamp.
The defense requested the court to be lenient with their sentencing because Pistorius’s disability and asked for a non-custodial sentence that would include doing community service instead of prison. The prosecution asked the minimum murder sentence of 15 years.
Sentencing will be read July 6th, 2016.
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