A few thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius trial

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you been following this story?


My Twitter feed includes the BBC reporter sitting in the courtroom, so I’ve read a lot of detail, some of it horrific, and reading about it in The New York Times.

The South African runner Oscar Pistorius stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, shooting her through his bathroom door when he mistook her for an intruder.

As someone who spent only one day — an unforgettably frightening one — covering two criminal trials in an Ontario courtroom decades ago, the coverage is making me crazy, because:

We don’t know if he is guilty. Endless speculation by journalists, almost all of which assumes Pistorius is guilty, appalls me.

The prosecutor, and Pistorius’ defense attorney, are not there to offer the truth. Their job is to present the most polished and impregnable version of whatever facts they have been able to assemble.

Mocking a defendant is cheap and nasty. Even the judge — as there is no jury system in South Africa — felt compelled to point this out to “Pit Bull” state prosecutor Gerrie Nel:

At one point during his testimony, Mr. Nel snickered. That prompted a rare interjection from Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, who seemed to be addressing the prosecutor and the gallery but whose comments could be heard far and wide, as the trial has become a global spectacle.

“You possibly think this is entertainment,” the judge said. “It is not.”

The trial is grisly and terrifying in its detail. I feel for the reporters who must listen to it and look at photos.

Why is it so impossible to imagine Pistorius’ very real terror if he thought an intruder had entered his home?

How would any of us feel or react if we awakened fearing an intruder — and we did not have quick, easy movement without prosthetics?

People who have never fired a handgun (as I have), have no idea — none — what that feels, smells and sounds like. To do so, as he did, half-asleep, in a small and enclosed space, would have been extremely loud and disorienting.

There is tremendous dislike and contempt for gun-owners by those who do not own a firearm — which includes most mainstream journalists covering this story. I know this, having spent two years researching gun use in the United States, interviewing 104 men, women and teens for my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.”

Like this New Yorker story.

I don’t own a gun but I get why some people make that choice. No matter how repugnant to others, their firearms are as normal and unremarkable a part of their life as a frying pan or car.

Prosecutor Nel demanded to know why Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp had never emailed or texted the words “I love you” to one another. Really? Relevance? Not everyone is verbally effusive with their affection.

One piece that does confuse me — why Steenkamp would have locked the bathroom door in her lover’s home.

Have you also followed this trial?

What do you think of it all?

Do you live in, or know what life is like in, South Africa? I’d love to hear from you especially.

22 thoughts on “A few thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius trial

  1. i have followed it from the beginning and am a huge believer in innocent until proven otherwise, though this is far from that philosophy. i have always been fascinated by the criminal and judicial processes and the crazy things that happen along the way. this case is no exception.

    1. I am really fed up with people character-assassinating him. He is either criminally liable or he is not, regardless of whether or not he’s a hothead or owns a firearm; conflating these three is wrong, in my view.

      1. separate issues. may or may not have any bearing on the actual case in a criminal sense. just like sharing that the victim in a rape case is employed as a prostitute. does not matter.

    1. I wonder; he has a female judge (a former journalist) and two assessors assisting her. I would not feel any more confident in 12 strangers’ opinions of my defense, (God forbid.)

  2. melanievotaw

    I’ve been to South Africa and have close friends there. I know the crime has skyrocketed in some areas, but people in this country often have a very skewed impression of what it’s like there. It’s not so very different. My closest friend there thinks the U.S. is a strange and crazy place, so there you go. I don’t quite know what to think of this case, but I think it’s very possible that he’s innocent. I was just rejected for jury duty on a murder case and very relieved, both because I freelance and can’t afford to lose that work time and because we were told the case would be “graphic.” I do share your disdain for journalists who write sensational stories about court cases that convict in the public mind before the case has concluded.

    1. Thanks, Mel. I knew someone would know SA…

      One of the things I do not understand (?!) is his intense fear of crime — when someone of his stature here wld live in a gated/guarded community and would not likely be subject to a home intrusion.

      The two days I spent in court in the mid 1980s will NEVER (I wish) escape my mind. One was a truly grisly murder trial — of a teen, by teens — and the other two gross to even mention here. It is damn traumatic stuff.

      1. melanievotaw

        Yes, I don’t understand his intense fear either. My friends don’t seem to have that where they live, but then, they live in other cities, not Johannesburg. When I was there in 1998, I was told that I needed to stay in a certain neighborhood to avoid crime. There was only one ‘hood that was supposed to be reasonably safe. I did take a tour through Soweto, and it looked fine during the day. This was post-Apartheid, so some white people had moved into Soweto because the cost was less.

  3. I’ve been following the proceedings and there a few things that don’t make sense to me which makes me doubt his innocence. The locked door along with her multiple phones being locked in with her makes me say … hmmm.

    I am very private about my bathroom habits and I would never lock the door especially if I got up to wee in the middle of the night so that doesn’t make a lot of sense either unless she did not want him to see what she was doing with her phone such as checking or sending messages.

    Second question that I haven’t heard explained in a way that makes sense to me is why did he fire at an angle in the direction of the toilet instead of straight on through the door unless he heard someone on or near the toilet.

    Also, why did he only fire four rounds … I’ve fired a variety of weapons and it makes sense that one might unload many rounds if trying to stop someone from coming after you. Sight unseen I could see firing one round to scare an intruder or unloading a clip if freaked out, but four rounds and no more angled towards the toilet makes me listen differently to the answers he’s giving.

    I’ve been victim of crime before (robbery and physical assault) and one of the times I felt vulnerable was when I felt threatened by two drunk men at my door late one evening when I was home alone with a baby in a rural setting. Had those men broken the glass in the door and reached in to open it, I would not have waited for them to come through it before firing. If they had come though the door, I would not have stopped with one round or four. Fear would have made me unload the weapon to protect myself and my daughter.

    I don’t know whether Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp in a fit of rage or whether it was an accidental shooting, but I’m glad he has a judge who is tough on crimes against women.

    1. Lots of questions. I agree about the firing of four shots. It is a big mess and I do not envy the judge and her team.

      Maybe he stopped firing (wouldn’t you?) because there was no return fire or response — i.e. there WAS no threat and he realized that.

      1. He and I differ in that I would never have fired without identifying the danger and by that I mean a visual sighting.

        If I’d been as afraid as he said he was, I don’t think I would have stopped firing until the bullets were gone. I have not heard all the evidence, but I’m also glad I’m not the judge.

        Fear or not he was reckless and based on his previous ” the gun went off accidentally ” restaurant experience, he got a pass from the universe that he didn’t kill someone then.

  4. It just doesn’t add up for me. Did he have drugs or alcohol in his system? Why would he assume there’s an intruder in the bathroom in the middle of the night? What intruder breaks into a house and goes into the bathroom. Plus, there’s witnesses who heard the screaming. I just think he’s a gun nut who went into a rage.

  5. I am following the trial. It’s getting a little tedious. My credentials as to South Africa: An uncle, one of my mother’s brothers, lived in Pretoria for most of his adult life. He is dead now. Natural causes.

    If I shot through the door every time someone is in the bathroom, waking me in the middle of the night, my son wouldn’t have any friends left, neither would he still be alive. I have never heard so much bullshit in my life. And I have been in hairy situations. Not boasting. Just a fact. Nothing but nothing OP says rings true.

    First reflex in anyone is to run away. Put distance between you and the perceived threat. Correction: First reflex is to alert those dear and close to you to any potential danger and make them run. As fast as possible.

    As to locking the bathroom door in the middle of the night, well – of course you do. It’s a reflex. Something you do automatically. Like driving from A to B on autopilot.

    They had a row. She may have told him it’s the end of the line as to their relationship. He lost it. I don’t know the statistics but most murders are of the domestic kind.

    That he pukes and sniffles in court – well, if I were him I too would throw up at the thought of having thrown my life away. Six by eight ft cells are not what I’d wish on anyone.

    I like to put myself into other people’s shoes (if only to understand what motivates someone). So I try and imagine what I’d do if my son (he is a bit younger than OP) had done something indefensible. Truth is: I’d fight for him and his freedom. Tooth and nail. I’d bend the truth till it were unrecognizable. I’d shine sun where there isn’t any. But that wouldn’t make the crime go away. The guilt. The truth. And, even if freed, there is no escape from the Alcatraz of your conscience.

    On a light note: Did you know that when people are stressed out their digestion system shuts down? So a “burglar” under threat of imminent discovery is unlikely to relieve himself. Unless of a truly nervous disposition. In which case he hardly constitutes a threat.


    1. “As to locking the bathroom door in the middle of the night, well – of course you do. It’s a reflex. Something you do automatically. Like driving from A to B on autopilot.”

      Why? If I were staying in a boyfriend’s apartment — which I certainly did when I was single — I would never have thought to lock the bathroom door. Close the door, yes. Lock it? No. Why would you? You either trust someone not to barge in on you or you don’t.

  6. To entertain many of your questions requires a great suspension of disbelief. We are asked to believe in the highly improbable due to the fact that he is a double amputee. Though I hate how long they stayed on the text messages, it should all be taken into perspective that their relationship was only about 4 months old. That is A LOT of emotion packed into such a small time frame. And these aren’t hormonal teenagers, Reeva was almost 30. So should I put this one up to immaturity? Or is it a domestic violence indicator?

    “Why is it so impossible to imagine Pistorius’ very real terror if he thought an intruder had entered his home?”

    This is the reason I follow this trial. There is a very ugly theme behind it upon which this very irrational defense hinges upon total suspension of disbelief. I call it the “Black Boogeyman defense.” The Bob Bashara case is a very close parallel to the Pistorius trial, in which a man from a rich neighborhood hired someone to kill his wife, put her body in a van, and leave the van in Detroit, so cops could just assume “oh, well, that’s what just happens in Detroit. Affluent whites just get killed by crackhead minorities. Open and shut case.” When in fact, that almost NEVER happens. The dummy didn’t even plant any evidence to support his claim to the police. It has been stated over and over that break-ins in Pistorius’ neighborhood never happened (1 since 2011). But because he BELIEVES that somebody broke into his house with guards in the front and an armed alarm system, he can get away with shooting his significant other. You would believe in a black ghost before believing the double amputee hero could just be an abusive asshole.

    Fine, let’s keep going with this. ANOTHER Steenkamp (no relation) got shot by her boyfriend who said he was the victim of an attack from an imaginary intruder in their bedroom. Wow. It’s like hunting with Dick Cheney. The only precedent that this is setting is that if you’re going to shoot your wife, make sure you kill her, and people will hear your story unfortunately.

    1. Having written a book about women and gun use — including interviewing women who were threatened with violence or death by their abusive husbands or intimate partners — I am not as naive as you think about men’s propensity for lethal violence.

      But having also been the victim of a vicious criminal myself, I know what that fear is like as well.

      I take your point. We’ll see, obviously, what the judge decides.

    1. Exactly. That’s why my very brief experience as a court reporter left such a powerful impression on me. It is not really about what happened.

      It is about the competing narratives of what happened.

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