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Pistorius trial: There's a hole in your bucket habit

Marina Hyde

Vomiting has played a role in past judgments but the jury is literally out on this one.

Visible horror: Images of Reeva Steenkamp's horrific injuries made Oscar Pistorius retch. (AFP)

Without wishing to be uncharitable, I’m getting a bit sick of Oscar Pistorius’s sick bucket. The first time it was called into service by the athlete’s defence team last week, the green plastic receptacle was undoubtedly something of a novelty, or, at the very least, a pointed revival of an ancient system of legal judgment.

In the Old Testament, vomiting was a sign of innocence in criminal disputes. For instance, priests administered poison to women suspected of cheating. If they absorbed it and miscarried, they were guilty. If they vomited it, they were innocent.

"When the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the Lord, the priest shall execute upon her all this law," explain the nice people who wrote Numbers. "Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity."

Ain’t that the truth. Back in those days, of course, an eye for an eye was the fabled standard, so you can’t think it would have been the most enormous leap to come round to the idea of a life for a few of high-end watches, or whatever Pistorius’s imagined intruder was after during the burglary during which he was so inconveniently caught short.

But is early 21st-century vomiting the same cast-iron indicator?

Debatable. With each new retch, in fact, it becomes harder and harder to accept Pis­torius’s surprise at what the maximum-damage expanding bullets he so carefully sought out and purchased actually do to the human body when emptied into it.

The description of the victim Reeva Steenkamp’s horrific injuries appear nauseating to the athlete. But the mushrooming "dum-dums" are ammunition so grimly specialist that they have been banned by international treaties from the Hague Convention to Rome, both of which South Africa is a signatory, and Pistorius’s apparently visceral horror at the effect of his chosen product is a puzzle that it is to be hoped his evidence will be required to address at length.

The question that hangs in the air – presumably intermingling with the smell of vomit – is whether a similarly detonated corpse of some notional burglar would have produced the same emetic reaction in the accused. Then again, any such intruder would statistically have been black, and the so-called civilised world is rather more accustomed to images of horribly deceased black bodies than it is to white ones.

Dismayed this week by a perceived double standard over the varying standards of privacy and dignity afforded to black and white corpses, a Daily Maverick news website commentator resurrected a letter written to the New York Times, after the paper printed graphic, identifiable images of the victims of last year’s Kenyan shopping mall terror attack.

"Would the New York Times run photos of blood-soaked dead white Americans after one of the many mass shootings that occur in the United States?" wondered Michael Deibert, who has reported for years from Africa. "I doubt it. That they did so after the mass killings in Nairobi yesterday is very troubling, not just to me but also to many other journalists, academics and analysts who focus on Africa."

As for the continued deployment of Pistorius’s green bucket, we might wonder what part it will play in influencing proceedings.

A dehydrated Pete Sampras once vomited twice on the baseline during a fifth-set tie-breaker during the quarterfinals of the US Open, and some credit the display with putting off his opponent sufficiently for him to go on and win the match.

Pistorius’s supporters may hope his vomiting will serve to underscore his innocent horror at what has been wrought.

On the other hand, the accused has only a judge to affect. To hear Pistorius’s emotive emesis was to be reminded of a Rumpole of the Bailey tale in which a heartstring-tugging performance by the QC is interrupted by the judge who tartly reminds him that it is not a jury trial.

One worries that, when Pistorius has a moment to look up from the bottom of his bucket, the shock of discovering that there is actually no jury in the courtroom might send him down for another heave.

What the defence surely wouldn’t want, ultimately, is for too much emphasis to be placed on the public or otherwise discharge of bodily functions. As their case stands, this is just one of those textbook tales of the burglar who coyly locks the bathroom door in case the chap whose house he’s planning to plunder sees him with his trousers down.

Now, there are those who will question this projected behaviour, and insist these days that the more traditional burglar etiquette is to defecate on the floor of the property.

There are others who might aver that the bathroom bashfulness would be unusual during a live burglary, never mind one taking place under the obvious time pressures dictated by it happening in one of the most heavily protected gated communities in one of the most security-obsessed countries on Earth.

So, perhaps an anti-emetic might be in order for the accused in the high court in Pretoria? The Pistorian guard might consider that at a certain weight of vomit even Lady Justice’s scales might be tipped – and not necessarily in the runner’s favour. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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