The two sides of Oscar Pistorius
In Pretoria’s High Court, just one person is on trial, but we are being asked to consider two men. Each version of the man, Olympian Oscar Pistorius, rhetorically stretches from opposing arguments about what happened in the early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, when Pistorius shot through his toilet door, killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
Before the man come the arguments. They are, first: Pistorius woke in his bedroom in almost total darkness, and left his bed without the aid of his prosthetic legs to shut the room’s balcony door. Hearing what he thought was someone entering through the bathroom window, and believing it to be an intruder, Pistorius seized his gun from under the bed that was, to his mind, still occupied by a sleeping Steenkamp. Fearing for his life, Pistorius blasted four times through the toilet door. Or: Following a dispute with his lover, Pistorius knowingly shot her through the toilet door.
The man responsible for the “tragic accident” is a man made hypersensitive to his vulnerability via a double-amputation when he was one and the death of his mother when he was 15. He is a wealthy celebrity in a country that records 15,000 murders every year, an Olympic hero. He is brave and driven, a testament to the success that comes from dedication.
The other man, the one responsible for murder, is violently petulant, immature and pregnant with entitlement. He has a history of reckless gun use and a propensity to angrily defer responsibility. According to texts tendered during the trial, Steenkamp complained to Pistorius about his jealousy and dark moods.
The conceit of criminal trials is that the respective portraits of the accused are complete, and that it’s impossible for both portraits to be true. But on the available evidence of the man, the prosecution’s case seems easier to make. Introduced to the trial was the fact that a gun, in Pistorius’s hand, had been discharged in a restaurant just a month before the death of Steenkamp. As Pistorius tells it, “I physically didn’t discharge it. It went off when it was in my possession, but I did not have my finger on the trigger.”
Pistorius did not acknowledge the spectacular recklessness of handling a gun in a restaurant. The danger and obnoxiousness of that was ignored in favour of his ghost gun defence. But this does not, ipso facto, prove Pistorius is a murderer. Far from it. Pistorius has, however, now asked us to believe two incredible things: that a gun in his hand went off by itself; and that another gun – the one that ended Steenkamp’s life – went off without him knowing its target.
An ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, testified to another impetuous use of a gun. Taylor and a friend were passengers of Pistorius when he was pulled over by police for speeding. Noticing Pistorius’s gun on a seat, the officer asked for it, emptied it of ammunition, and handed it back. Fuming, Pistorius drove off, reloaded his gun and fired it skywards through the open sunroof. Pistorius responded to this testimony by calling Taylor a liar.
No doubt Pistorius’s hedges, rejections and implausible denials have come from the dull but necessary advice of his lawyer, Barry Roux. Yet much of the world believes that it comes also from a pathological refusal to take responsibility.
November 22, 1986, and Hank and Sheila could not dream that their son, just born without fibulas, would become an Olympian. The medical advice was brutal: Oscar should have both legs amputated below the knee, and preferably before he tried to walk – insofar as he could. When he was 18 months old, he received his first prosthetic legs. He learnt to use them better than most of us can exploit our natural limbs.
In high school, Pistorius played rugby, cricket, water polo and boxed until a shattered knee from a rugby collision in 2003 meant he had to recalibrate his athleticism. He took up track and field and almost immediately began breaking records, clocking 11.72 seconds in the 100 metres as an amateur teenager.
His ascension was popularly celebrated in South Africa, and then around the world. A string of misfortunes soldered the legend: heinous birth defect, the death of his mother aged 46, a serious knee injury, and then, in 2009, a boating accident that caved in his face and left him in an induced coma for five days. Pistorius spoke of the accident in the trial: “My face was hot … I was drowning in blood.”
Many mythologised Pistorius as a product of Herculean will, innate talent, committed parents and the scientific advances of prosthetics. Pistorius dominated Paralympic track events, competing in Athens, Beijing and London, and winning gold in all three. During this time, Pistorius pushed to compete in able-bodied events. In 2012, after the International Olympic Committee permitted Pistorius’s inclusion in the South African track squad, he kitted up for the 400-metre individual sprint and the 4x400-metre relay. In the first, he was eliminated in the semi-finals.
We cherish avatars of indestructible will, even – or especially – when they’re presented to us by public relations teams. Michael Jordan – one of history’s finest athletes – may have been the first sporting figure to awaken the advertising world to the vertiginous global profits available by yoking their brands to sporting achievement. But when Jordan was inducted into the National Basketball Association’s Hall of Fame in 2009 and used his speech to avenge a history of perceived slights, we were reminded of the corollary to his greatness: self-absorption, spiteful fury and a sense of competition uncircumscribed by time or place.
None of which lessens Jordan’s success or his capacity to inspire. The same goes for Pistorius. But witnessing greatness is one thing; being sold it is another, and there are consequences to men or women singularly dominating their fields. Having a multimillion-dollar endorsement has a way of erasing honesty about the causes and effects of single-mindedness.
The testimony about Pistorius’s character paints a man confident and insecure; brazen and doubtful; strong and weak. In the constraints of the trial, the respective portraits of Pistorius are incomplete. Combined, you get a little closer to the multitudes.
The truth within
The door. It’s all about that toilet door. That door – and the fact Pistorius can argue he did not know who was behind it – is everything. For five days of cross-examination, ending on Tuesday, the famously aggressive prosecutor Gerrie Nel tried to kick down the door of Pistorius’s defence. Ruthlessly, he used leading questions, repeated accusations of Pistorius’s dishonesty, and showed explicit crime scene photos to jar Pistorius into confession or contradiction. He cited a neighbour hearing a domestic dispute; he demanded Pistorius accept the implausibility of his defence. Pistorius wept, shook, and vomited – but he stayed firm. He believed he was shooting at an intruder who meant him mortal harm.
The black box of this trial is not to be discovered in forensic evidence – it’s in the accused’s head. It’s the elusive fact of his intention when he sent four Talon bullets into the bathroom. In lieu of conclusive physical evidence or indisputable testimony from an eyewitness, the rhetorical brutality of Nel reveals a weakness in the case. Pistorius need only stay the course.
Consistent with police interviews of killers I’ve seen – and consistent with the stories homicide detectives have told me – murderers rarely speak volubly about the moment of killing. They can speak clearly about the moments before and after. Can co-operatively sketch a chronology. Can express regret or mortification. Quite probably the forces of shock and localised amnesia are deployed to soften the horror. Psychically, it is in the interest of the killer to commit themselves to a narrative of hot, inchoate madness – something temporary and spontaneous – rather than commit themselves to a self-performed mental autopsy.
It’s similar with Pistorius, though he does not admit to murder. Repeatedly asked to reveal his thinking when he fired four times, Pistorius could only confer the gun or the circumstances its own autonomy – as something that happened independently of himself. Fear pulled the trigger. “I wasn’t thinking,” Pistorius has repeated. If he wasn’t thinking, he might absolve himself, as if this temporary suspension of cognition was not his to take responsibility for. Asked by his lawyer to recall his emotions at the moment, Pistorius said: “I feared for my life. I was thinking about what might happen to me and Reeva … I was overwhelmed by terror and vulnerability.” It is a mantra that his lawyer has encouraged.
Which is not to say that it is inaccurate. We meet again the two men. One terrifyingly aware of his vulnerability, shooting on stumps into an unseen villain. The other is an intemperate murderer, strategically and emotionally compelled to be deceitful. There is a maddening ambiguity here: the inadequacy of Pistorius’s recollection – the sense that it was an out-of-body experience – is consistent with both an honest man who acted in a blaze of fear, and with a liar. It is the prosecution’s job to marshal the evidence and shred that ambiguity. It hasn’t. The door stands.
For days, Nel was intimidating. The Olympian once celebrated for his strength of will was slumped and puking, subject now to a much greater force of nature. But for all of Nel’s dramatic aggression, his cross-examination ended on Tuesday night in a whimper: “Why did you use Black Talon ammunition?”
“It was the ammo for my weapon.”
“I put it to you that your story is so improbable that it can’t possibly be true.”
Pistorius addressed his answer to judge Thokozile Masipa: “I disagree, my lady.”
Nel then finished with reference, again, to the neighbour’s testimony that she heard a woman’s “blood-curdling screams”. Nel argues that she had, in fact, heard Reeva Steenkamp in the moments before her death.
“She didn’t hear Reeva, my lady.”
And that was that. The cross-examination was over. Nel has a sense of theatre, but there was no artful summation of arguments here, presumably because the evidence didn’t permit it. Pistorius’s credibility is scorched, Nel’s reputation secured and Reeva Steenkamp dead and buried. But ambiguity reigns and it is unlikely the black box will ever be found.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Oscar’s lore". Subscribe here.