Between sobs and howls, South African Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius took the witness stand at his own murder trial on Tuesday to finally describe the night he killed his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp last year.
Pistorius’ account of the events of the wee hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 marked his first extended public comments on the killing. It was the dramatic high point of a trial that has gripped South Africa for over a year, and has already included no shortage of macabre, startling moments.
Pistorius surged to worldwide fame at the 2012 Summer Olympics after becoming the first amputee sprinter to compete in the both the Paralympics and Olympics. He netted lucrative endorsement deals from Nike and others while becoming a global inspiration for overcoming the amputation of both his lower legs to find athletic success.
Then, just seven months later, he was arrested for Steenkamp’s killing, and charged with premeditated murder by South African prosecutors. Arguments in his trial began on March 3 of this year, and Pistorius first took the stand on Monday, before going into more detail about Steenkamp’s death on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Pistorius told Judge Thokozile Masipa — who will decide his fate alone because South Africa has no jury trials — that he struggled to sleep and awoke during the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, according to the Associated Press. He said he stepped onto a balcony of a bedroom he shared with Steenkamp in his well-appointed home in a gated community in Pretoria, South Africa, to get some fresh air. Pistorius said he returned to the dark bedroom, then heard a noise come from its bathroom.
Pistorius told Masipa and her Pretoria courtroom that he felt vulnerable there in the dark, walking only on the stumps of his amputated legs. Fearing a home-invasion robbery, he said he yelled for Steenkamp to call the police. Then, he said he heard a door slam, and took that as final proof that his home was being invaded. So he fired four shots from a pistol through the locked bathroom door, thinking an intruder was inside.
Only later — after calling Steenkamp’s name more and searching for her in possible hiding spots — did he realize the mistake he could have made, Pistorius said. He broke down the bathroom door to find Steenkamp’s bloodied body.
“I sat over Reeva, and I cried,” Pistorius said, according to the AP. “I don’t know how long I was there for.”
So the public has finally heard Pistorius’ account of that night in his own words. But the trial’s central question still remains: Is Pistorius himself the victim of a tragic misunderstanding, living with torment and guilt after accidentally shooting to death the beloved girlfriend he assumed in a panic was a malicious intruder? Or is that all a lie, as the prosecution alleges, concocted to conceal the truth — that Pistorius murdered Steenkamp after a lover’s quarrel?
The fallen hero
Whatever the answer to that question, Pistorius’ shocking change of fate has cast the man once exalted as a hero in an ugly new light, and his trial offers a window into larger racial and gender-based issues South Africa has struggled with for decades.
As Pistorius attained fame in South Africa after first winning a Paralympic gold medal at 17 years old in 2004, he was given the nickname “Blade Runner” for the high-tech prosthetics that let him run. He was allowed to compete in the 2012 Olympics only after winning a drawn-out legal battle against the International Association of Athletic Federations, and then carried the South African flag at the London games’ closing ceremony.
But Pistorius was more than just a heartwarming story in his home country. For many, he was an icon who transcended sports. Some even found his triumph over enormous adversity to find success on the greatest stage analogous to South Africa’s journey as a country after decades of apartheid separated black and white citizens.
Simon Hartley, managing editor of the the South African news site 2oceansvibe, told Mashable last month that many saw Pistorius in this light “because being able to sprint after being born without functional legs is something we need to believe we’re able to do, if we’re going to become a country in which no one ever feels marginalized ever again.”
But if Pistorius came to represent the best of South Africa, his murder trial also magnifies some of its worst.
The country has one of the world’s highest rates of violence against women, and many see Pistorius’ killing of Steenkamp as a tabloid-ready instance of something that’s all too common. The murder of women by men close to them, called “intimate femicide,” is considered a problem unto its own.
And the very basis of Pistorius’ legal defense is tinged with racial implications in a country just 20 years removed from apartheid and its first democratic election, according to some.
Violent home robberies against the affluent are feared by many in South Africa. Pistorius’ argument that he killed Steenkamp by accident while scared for his own safety plays to the worries of many — largely white — South Africans.
But according to South African novelist Margie Orford, that narrative contains some measure of race-based fear mongering. Pistorius’ defense, Orford wrote in The Guardian last month, “inserts a third body into an all too familiar narrative of domestic violence … It is the threatening body, nameless and faceless, of an armed and dangerous black intruder.”
What to expect from a cross-examination
And that brings us back to Tuesday’s tearful testimony. Did Pistorius shoot Steenkamp after mistaking her for an intruder? Or was something more sinister at play?
At one point on Tuesday, Pistorius left the courtroom to change from his suit into a shirt and shorts, according to courtroom reports. Then, in clothing similar to what he wore the night he killed Steenkamp, Pistorius removed his prosthetic lower legs. He stood before the court on his stumps next to the very bullet-scarred door through which he shot Steenkamp. Most observers thought this move was designed by Pistorius’ high-priced legal team to engender sympathy for how vulnerable Pistorius could have felt thinking an intruder was in his bedroom.
Then Pistorius told Masipa and her full courtroom about how he thought he heard a noise made by an intruder, describing that as “the moment that everything changed.”
Pistorius has wept, sobbed, retched or vomited in court multiple times since his trial began on March 3, but none of those occasions match the outbursts that came from him on the witness stand Tuesday, according to courtroom reports. Different news reports describe his apparently tortured utterances as “wails” and “howls.” Masipa soon ended the day’s proceedings.
With the prosecution having wrapped its case in late March and Pistorius now having taken the stand, most remaining questions about the trial concern the prosecution’s expected cross-examination of Pistorius. That will likely come later this week, providing more dramatic courtroom moments. The cross-examination will give state prosecution a chance to poke holes in Pistorius’ account of Valentine’s Day 2013, as well as allow it to continue pointing to evidence it says proves Pistorius has a history of fascination with firearms and volatile relationships with women.
But even if Masipa does believe Pistorius’ account of the killing, that may not save the man once known as “Blade Runner” from a murder conviction, according to William Booth, a Cape Town, South Africa, attorney who specializes in criminal cases.
“He exceeded the bounds of what he was entitled to in our law, and even if he didn’t think it was Reeva, he could still be guilty of murder,” Booth told NBC.
If convicted of premeditated murder, Pistorius faces a sentence of life in prison, without possibility of parole for at least 25 years. If found not guilty, Pistorius could still be found guilty of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter in the United States. That charge could carry a sentence of up to 15 years, according to CNN. And then there’s always the possibility of him escaping prison altogether.
Exactly when that judgement is handed down is unclear. But, with the bulk of Pistorius’ testimony likely behind us, the much-anticipated moment of truth marches ever nearer.
UPDATE, April 9, 10:11 a.m.: Prosecutor Gerrie Nel began cross-examining Pistorius on Wednesday, accusing the athlete of killing his girlfriend on purpose.
“You made a mistake?” he told Pistorius, trying to rattle him, according to CNN. “You shot and killed her. Say it — ‘I shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp.”
Nel, whom The New York Times describes as “combative, dogged and pugnacious” — he’s known as “the pit bull” — even took out a graphic picture of Steenkamp’s head after the shooting, pushing Pistorius to look at it.
“Take responsibility for what you’ve done!” he said, according to The Times.
Pistorius refused, saying he remembered that image. “I was there,” he said, adding that the memory tormented him. At that point Pistorius started weeping, and the court took a recess to give him time to compose himself.
The paralympic athlete defended himself saying he did not intend to kill Steenkamp, “or anybody else for that matter.”
“I had a fear, I didn’t have time to think, I discharged my firearm,” he said. “I didn’t intend to shoot at anyone, I shot out of fear.”
The court was adjourned for the day.