Tearful Pistorius cleared of murder charges

Media frenzy: The murder trial of Pistorius has been closely followed around the world © PA

The trial of one of the world’s most famous sporting stars, accused of killing his girlfriend, is coming to a close. A tawdry celebrity media circus? Or a case with a far wider significance?

After a year of near-continuous feverish coverage, Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee Olympic gold medallist, has been found not guilty of murdering his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp.

Steenkamp was shot three times through the bathroom door of Pistorius’s home on Valentine’s Day last year. He maintained throughout the trial that he believed Steenkamp was an intruder, and that it was all a terrible mistake. State prosecutors argued it was a calculated, cold-blooded attack.

Importantly, Pistorius could still be found guilty of culpable homicide, which applies when someone dies as a result of negligence. But Judge Thokozile Masipa has reached the conclusion that there is not enough evidence to suggest that Pistorius had foreseen that his actions could result in someone's death. As one reporter commented, ‘he’s cleared the biggest hurdle’ — Pistorius is not a murderer.

Nonetheless, Masipa has stated that Pistorius acted unlawfully in firing the shots. As a result, he will escape a 25-year prison sentence, but could still face up to 15 years behind bars. Many believe the athlete is getting off lightly, possibly because of his fame.

The case has gripped the world’s attention for the past 12 months, generating headlines across the globe — and controversies. The UK’s Sun newspaper caused outrage when it reported Pistorius’s arrest with a picture of Steenkamp in a bikini on its front page, as did Paddy Power, when it offered bets on the trial’s outcome. Many complained that these actions trivialised violence against women.

The case also shone an important light on post-apartheid South African society, encapsulated in the figure of Judge Masipa, South Africa’s second black female judge. From her humble beginnings in a poor township, she has presided over one of the country’s most significant legal cases. This would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, during the days of apartheid.

Private tragedy, public issues

Some wonder why we are so fascinated. As one critic put it; ‘One trial is no great national issue. This is the examination of an intimate personal tragedy involving two people.’ This story does not concern us, and global attention does not equate to global significance. We are simply gawping at a courtroom drama and the lurid coverage of a grisly murder.

But others disagree. Issues such as racial inequality, gun control, violence against women, disability and televised justice have all been raised, and provoked endlessly fascinating discussions about modern attitudes. Behind the headline-grabbing sensationalism, this is a case that tells us much about South African society, and the contemporary world in general.

You Decide

  1. What aspect of the case do you find most interesting?
  2. Has the trial received a proportionate or disproportionate amount of media attention?

Activities

  1. In groups, write a brief news story, complete with a headline, describing a key stage in the trial. Write it first in the style of a tabloid newspaper, and then in the style of a broadsheet.
  2. Take an issue that has emerged from the case, such as gun control in South Africa or violence against women. Do some research and write a brief presentation on the issue.

Some People Say...

“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.’Oscar Wilde”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it bad that I’m interested in this story because it involves two celebrities?
Not necessarily - it’s human nature to be swept up by dramatic events. But just because the media has devoted so much attention to it, we should ask ourselves why, whether the information has been presented in an appropriate way, and what we can learn from the case, rather than taking it all at face value.
What other cases have been particularly significant?
The 1995 OJ Simpson murder trial forced the US to reconsider institutionalised racism. The more recent case of the shooting in Florida of Trayvon Martin highlighted racism and gun control issues. In the UK, the horrific 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys triggered a wave of moral panic and much soul-searching.

Word Watch

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius was just 17 when he won gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. He is regarded as a sporting superstar, having achieved incredible success despite having both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old. Many believe his status could have precluded him from a harsher sentence.
Culpable homicide
This means there was no intention to kill, but actions were negligent and not in keeping with a reasonable person. It would be similar to reckless driving or failing to check faulty fire alarms in a hotel, resulting in death.
Post-apartheid
Under apartheid, non-white South Africans (a majority of the population) did not have the vote and were forced to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities. A new constitution, which enfranchised blacks and other racial groups, took effect in 1994.
Judge Masipa
Judge Masipa has become a role model for thousands of young black South Africans.
Township
The often impoverished urban areas where non-whites were forced to live from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid.

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