Pistorius: The 'ugh' story that won't go away
As a journalist covering the seemingly never-ending Oscar Pistorius drama, it is growing increasingly difficult not to feel, at best, slightly embarrassed.
Now that we’ve spent nearly three years covering this case, there’s something vaguely uncomfortable about documenting the latest twists in this story. The awareness, perhaps, that the narratives around this trial are not really about illuminating what has become a matter of legal definition and understanding.
That perhaps we are just feeding a monster.
“This feels like we are knitting at the guillotine,” a colleague whispered to me at the latest of Pistorius’s court appearances.
“It feels a bit … ugh.”
Ugh. Three letters perfectly sum up a story that just won’t go away. Pistorius is now preparing to fight his recent murder conviction in the Constitutional Court – and the outcome of that appeal attempt will determine whether he faces a decade behind bars or remains under house arrest until 2019.
South Africa is imploding, politically and economically. Thousands of students used the power of protest to stop university fee increases. Municipal elections loom. And we still keep covering the Pistorius case with an intensity that simply cannot be justified.
That coverage has also not been particularly good – and may have a lot to do with widespread misperceptions about what this case is actually about.
The problem is that the Pistorius story did not conform to all that the prosecution and, to some degree, the media promised it would be. Reeva Steenkamp’s death has not been found to be the result of a jealous and violent love turned deadly. Pistorius has not been convicted of intentionally and deliberately taking her life.
Instead, Pistorius has been found guilty of murder according to his own account of Steenkamp’s death, that he fired four shots into his toilet door in an attempt to defend her and himself from a perceived intruder.
The appeal court has found that Pistorius’s actions in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 were not legally justified and his self-described fears of attack were irrational.
Just moments after Judge Eric Leach explained the court’s ruling, however, the Bloemfontein branch of the ANC Women’s League went on live television to demand a lengthy sentence for Pistorius – on the basis that Steenkamp had been the victim of murderous domestic abuse.
“We are looking forward that Oscar Pistorius should get up from 20 years and/or life,” said the league’s Free State chair, Mapaseka Nkoane.
The appeal court’s explanation of Pistorius’s guilt under the principle of dolus eventualis had seemingly not influenced the league’s perceptions of what this case was about.
And they were clearly not the only ones.
This case has changed in character from ultra-sensational to densely legal. It’s a matter of debate about whether enough has been done to make that journey – and its implications – clear.
When Pistorius was first arrested, he stood accused of the premeditated murder of Steenkamp, whom he had been dating for two months at the time of her death. Prosecutors argued Pistorius had put on his prosthetic legs before deliberately firing into his toilet door to kill Steenkamp – with some newspaper reports claiming that blood-spatter expert Captain Ian van der Nest was probing whether Steenkamp had been bludgeoned with a cricket bat.
In the end, though, Van der Nest and ballistics expert Captain Chris Mangena found that crime scene forensics did not support either of these scenarios.
The state, however, persisted with a premeditated murder case against Pistorius, arguing that Steenkamp had died in a type of killing sickeningly familiar in South Africa: intimate partner femicide. Pistorius had killed Steenkamp after an argument, the prosecution argued.
Judge Thokozile Masipa was unconvinced, finding that the defence’s timeline of the shooting was far more plausible than the state’s account of it. She rejected the claims of residents who testified they’d heard a woman screaming after the first set of banging noises heard that morning, and accepted the evidence of Pistorius’s closest neighbours – who testified that the crying and screaming actually came from Pistorius himself.
The tale of love gone violently and horribly wrong is over. But it continues to define much of the public discourse around this case. That’s not what this case is about any more.
Pistorius will spend the coming weeks waiting to learn whether he has any real hope of not returning to jail –and not having the tag of “convicted murderer” attached to his name.
Nearly three years ago, Pistorius outlined the circumstances of his life – and the shooting that in effect destroyed it – in an affidavit before the Pretoria magistrate’s court.
The then 27-year-old revealed that he earned R5.6?million a year and had properties and assets valued at more than R10?million, including the R5?million mansion where he shot and killed Steenkamp.
Identified by Google as one of the most searched-for names on the internet after the 2012 Paralympic and Olympic Games, Pistorius was on the verge of signing the most lucrative contracts of his career when he killed the law graduate and model.
Following the appeal court’s ruling, Pistorius was forced to hand over another bail affidavit, in a bid to stay out of jail as he tries to overturn his murder conviction.
That affidavit did far more than simply sketch the basis for Pistorius’s attempted appeal. It starkly illustrated the realities of life for the one-time athletic star, who is now a convicted killer.
“I have no income,” he stated under oath, “but continue to seek employment … It is difficult to obtain employment due to my conviction [for culpable homicide] and correctional supervision conditions.
“I have lost all my assets and only possess my personal assets.”
Pistorius’s wealth was annihilated by the costs of his criminal trial, with his defence reportedly costing in the region of R18?million. The state has not disputed the fact that Pistorius is broke, accepting his proposed bail amount of just R10?000, a fraction of the R1?million bail guarantee he paid when he was first arrested.
Pistorius’s family are understood to be sponsoring the costs of his attempted appeal to the Constitutional Court. He is adamant that it can, and should, succeed.
“The nature and gravity of any punishment that may be imposed on me play no part in my actions or decisions,” he stated under oath, “as I believe that I will be successful in an appeal to the Constitutional Court.”
The basis of his appeal – which South Africa’s highest court must first agree to hear – is simply this: that the state is legally only allowed to challenge a court’s legal interpretation and not its factual findings. Pistorius argues that the appeal court unlawfully rejected Masipa’s factual finding “that I genuinely and honestly believed that my life and the life of the deceased were in danger when I discharged the firearm”.
This rejection of that finding, he maintains, was a violation of his right to a fair trial.
Further, Pistorius says, the appeal court wrongly evaluated his behaviour before and during the shooting according to an objective test of what a rational person would do. This, he says, is wrong.
His actions, he and his lawyers have argued, need to be understood and evaluated subjectively – as those of a double amputee with anxiety issues. It is not right or fair, they say, to treat him like someone who is not disabled.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel is clearly unimpressed. “We are not convinced the accused has made out a good case [or that] his application before the Constitutional Court will be successful,” he told the high court.
Nel added that the state would argue that Pistorius should be sentenced to 15 years in jail for murder – when and if his appeal bid failed.
Pistorius stared straight at Nel when he addressed the court, a very different person from the man who spent much of his trial in tears, vomiting or hunched over in the dock. He’s greyer and thinner, and has the air of a teddy bear that has had all its stuffing pulled out.
Steenkamp’s parents have set up a trust in her memory to assist abused women. And, just days after Pistorius’s court appearance, they took part in a women’s league march to mark 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. With them were the parents of murder victims Tshepiso Sithole and Jayde Panayiotou.
June Steenkamp faced the cameras and spoke about her daughter’s legacy. Her husband Barry, Reeva’s father, said very little. A Port Elizabeth local who knows the family told me that Barry Steenkamp had loved to keep sweets in his beard and get children to pull them out “like this Father Christmas-type guy”.
With the cameras clicking around him, Barry Steenkamp looked defeated now, like something was pulled out of him. Something imperceptible but essential. Something like joy, something like light.