‘It was murder’ says Pistorius judge
A year after the original sentence was given, South Africa’s supreme court yesterday ruled that Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. What has changed?
As court adjourned, Oscar Pistorius’s lawyer Barry Roux made a difficult confession. ‘I’m going to lose,’ he told Gerrie Nel, the state prosecutor he was arguing against at South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal.
He was proved right. Yesterday the court overturned Pistorius’s conviction of manslaughter. Instead, said Justice Eric Leach, he was guilty of murder.
The case began in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 in the South African city of Pretoria, when the Paralympic gold medallist fired four shots through his bathroom door. He used ‘expanding bullets’ which are designed to cause maximum damage. His girlfriend, the model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp, was killed.
‘I made a terrible mistake,’ said Pistorius in court last year, during a trial that lasted 54 days. He said he had heard a noise in the dead of the night, and thought it was an intruder. ‘I didn’t have time to think,’ he said.
Here, he hit on the crux of the legal case surrounding him. No one was denying that he had killed Reeva; his guilt, and his sentence, was determined by what he was thinking as he did it. South African law depends on a concept called dolus eventualis. This is the knowledge that your actions will break the law, and your decision to carry them out anyway.
Although Pistorius killed his girlfriend, he claimed at the time he thought he was protecting her. House robbery is a serious problem in the country, and he used his weapon in self-defence. At the end of his highly publicised trial in 2014, the judge ruled in favour of this version of events, finding him guilty of ‘culpable homicide’ rather than murder, and sentencing him to five years in prison.
But now the the court has said that it does not matter who Pistorius believed was behind the bathroom door. He fired four lethal bullets at close range; he must have known that the person might die as a result. It was murder. When he is re-sentenced in 2016, he could well face at least 15 more years in prison.
All in the mind
South African law argues that intention is everything. No one is suggesting that another person fired the shots — the legal complexity depends on what happened inside Pistorius’s head. After all, that is how you tell the difference between an evil monster and a man who made an awful mistake.
But this is missing the point, argue others. Every eight hours, a woman in South Africa is killed by her partner. The country is plagued by what the writer Margie Orford calls ‘serial femicide’. Reeva Steenkamp spoke out against this toxic culture, only to become a victim of it herself. It doesn’t matter what Pistorius was thinking; in the end he killed his girlfriend, and justice has finally been served.
- Is ‘I didn’t mean to’ a good excuse?
- Millions of people followed the Pistorius case. Has his celebrity status helped him, or made things worse?
- Use The Day‘s archives to create a timeline of Oscar Pistorius’s life — from his athletic career to the present day.
- South Africa is no stranger to violence — research an era from its history and write 300 words explaining the difficulties it faced in that time.
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Q & A
- Isn’t this an unusual case?
- The celebrity status of Pistorius and Steenkamp certainly made it more noticeable. But the case itself is not so unusual in the country. In 2012, just a ten minute drive from Pistorius, a man called Glenn Boshoff accidentally shot his eight-year-old daughter through a bathroom door at 3:30am, thinking there were intruders in his house. He did not face criminal charges.
- How does South Africa compare with the rest of the world in this kind of violence?
- It has particularly high rate of murder and sexual assault. But unfortunately, violence against women is a problem throughout the world, including in the UK: in June, the Crown Prosecution Service said that 78,773 people were convicted of violence against women in the previous year.
- Pistorius’s legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. He won two gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympics, and became the first amputee sprinter to compete in the able-bodied Olympics.
- Reeva Steenkamp
- The model was known by her friends as a private, intelligent and driven woman who was top of her law class at university. She hoped to return to employing her legal knowledge once her career as a model was over, and even spoke of opening ‘a law firm to help abused women’.
- Dolus eventualis
- This is a complex term to understand. The legal definition is ‘when the perpetrator objectively foresees the possibility of his act causing death and persists regardless of the consequences’.
- House robbery
- A study by Stats SA estimates that there are around 50 invasions into private property each night.
- Eight hours
- From a study by the South African Medical Research Council published in August 2012.