Trial of Oscar Pistorius

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The State vs Oscar Pistorius
Palace of Justice, Church Square, pretoria.JPG
The Palace of Justice in Pretoria
Court Gauteng Division of the High Court of South Africa in Pretoria
Case history
Related action(s) Multichoice (Proprietary) Limited and others v National Prosecuting Authority and another [2014] ZAGPPHC 37, High Courts – Gauteng, Pretoria (South Africa) (broadcasting of proceedings)
Court membership
Judge(s) sitting Thokozile Masipa

The trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp and several gun-related charges (The State vs Oscar Pistorius)[1][2] in the High Court of South Africa in Pretoria commenced on 3 March 2014. Pistorius is a leading South African runner, who won attention as an athlete with a disability competing at a high level, including multiple Paralympic Games and the 2012 Summer Olympics. Steenkamp, a model, was his girlfriend. In the early morning of Thursday, 14 February 2013, Steenkamp was shot and killed by Pistorius at his Pretoria home.[3][4][5] Pistorius acknowledged that he shot Steenkamp to death and said that he mistook her for an intruder.[6] Pistorius was taken into police custody and was formally charged with murder in a Pretoria court on 15 February 2013.[7][8][9]

On 25 February 2014, Judge President Dunstan Mlambo ruled in the High Court in Pretoria that the entire trial may be broadcast live via audio and that parts of the trial may be broadcast live via television, namely the opening and closing arguments, the testimony of consenting state witnesses, the judgment, and the sentencing if applicable.[10][11]

Bail hearing[edit]

The bail hearing commenced on 19 February 2013 under Chief Magistrate of Pretoria Desmond Nair.[3][12] During the hearing, both prosecution and defence said that Pistorius had fired four shots through a locked toilet door, hitting Steenkamp three times inside.[13][14] Prosecutor Gerrie Nel claimed that Pistorius had put on his prosthetic legs, walked across his bedroom to the bathroom, and intentionally shot Steenkamp through the door.[13][15] Nel argued that the time required for this process was sufficient to establish the alleged murder as premeditated.[16] Pistorius said that he had thought Steenkamp was in the bed, and that the person in the toilet was an intruder.[13]

Chief investigating officer Hilton Botha said at the bail hearing that a witness had heard gunshots coming from Pistorius' home and then a female screaming followed by more gunshots; he initially said the witness was 600 metres away, but later said the distance was 300 metres.[17] Botha also said the trajectory of the gunshots indicated that they had been fired downward and directly toward the toilet, seemingly conflicting with Pistorius' statement that he was not wearing his prosthetics at the time.[18] He acknowledged that procedural mistakes had been made during the crime scene investigation and that police had found no evidence inconsistent with the version of events presented by Pistorius, adding later that equally nothing contradicted the police version, either.[17][18] On 22 February 2013, Botha was removed from the case following revelations that he was facing attempted murder charges stemming from a 2009 incident. Botha was replaced by Vineshkumar Moonoo, described as "the most senior detective" in the South African Police Service.[19]

On the first day of the bail hearing, Magistrate Nair ruled that for the purposes of the bail hearing Pistorius was charged with a Schedule 6 criminal offence, which relates to serious crimes including premeditated murder and requires exceptional circumstances for release on bail.[20][21] On 22 February 2013, at the conclusion of the four-day bail hearing, Magistrate Nair said that the state had not convinced him that Pistorius posed a flight risk and fixed bail at R1 million (US$113,000).[22] On 4 June 2013 the court case was postponed to allow time for further investigation until a hearing at Pretoria Magistrate's Court on 19 August 2013,[23][24] when Pistorius was formally indicted on two charges of murder and the illegal possession of ammunition. The indictment noted that even if Pistorius was mistaken in the identity of the person he shot, the intention was to kill.[25][26]

In late June 2013, Pistorius returned to training, reportedly looking much thinner and wearing a beard. His agent said that it was a very emotional experience for Pistorius and that returning had been a "bittersweet" moment for him.[27]

Trial[edit]

Dates for a trial to be held at the Gauteng Division of the High Court were initially set from 3 to 20 March 2014,[28] and later extended until 16 May 2014.[29] The court was set to adjourn after proceedings on 17 April 2014, returning on 5 May 2014, to accommodate scheduling conflicts of the prosecution.[30]

The murder trial commenced on 3 March 2014 in the High Court in Pretoria. Pistorius is also facing a charge of illegal possession of ammunition and two charges of firing a gun in a public space.[31][32] The trial was assigned to Judge Thokozile Masipa,[33] who appointed two assessors, Janette Henzen du Toit and Themba Mazibuko,[34] to help her evaluate the case and reach a verdict.[35] There is no jury, as the jury system in South Africa was abolished during apartheid.[36]

Section 35 of the South African Bill of Rights provides that "Every accused person has a right to a fair trial, which includes the right... to be tried in a language that the accused person understands or, if that is not practicable, to have the proceedings interpreted in that language".[37] At the start of the trial, Masipa told the court that the proceedings would be held in English with the assistance of interpreters, and confirmed that Pistorius is English-speaking.[38] Difficulties related to court interpreters have led to court delays, mistranslations and witnesses opting to testify in English rather than their first language.[39][40][41]

The opening statement of prosecutor Gerrie Nel noted that the murder case against Pistorius is based largely on circumstantial evidence, as there were no eyewitnesses to the incident.[39] Contrary to statements made in the bail hearing, the prosecution's case in the trial is that Pistorius was not wearing his prosthetic legs at the time of the shooting,[42][43][44] or when he broke the toilet door down afterwards.[45] Prosecution expert witness Christian Mangena, a police ballistics analyst, testified "the shooter was most likely not wearing prosthetic legs".[46][47][48] Prosecution expert witness Johannes Vermeulen, a police forensic analyst, testified Pistorius was not wearing his prosthetic legs when he broke the toilet door down with a cricket bat after the shooting.[49] Pistorius pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him, including murder and three gun-related charges.[50][51]

In his opening statement read out by Pistorius family lawyer Kenny Oldwage,[2] Pistorius said he believed Steenkamp was in bed when he shot at what he thought was an intruder behind the toilet door, and that he had spoken to her in bed shortly beforehand.[52] He admitted to killing Steenkamp, but denied the charge of murder.[6][53]

The lead defence advocate in the case is Barry Roux.[2][54] In South African criminal law, murder is defined as the intentional unlawful killing of another human being. The defence of Pistorius is that, in shooting at what he believed to be an intruder, he mistakenly believed he was acting in self-defence. Self-defence excludes the unlawfulness requirement of criminal liability – so that an act in valid self-defence is lawful. Technically his defence amounts to a claim that he did not intend to act unlawfully. If he can raise a reasonable doubt in his favour that he was actually mistaken, as he claims, he is entitled, under South African law, to a complete acquittal on the charge of murder. The court will then consider whether this mistake was reasonable – one that a reasonable person, in his circumstances, may have made. If the court concludes that this was an unreasonable mistake, it will convict him of culpable homicide (all other requirements assumed). Culpable homicide in South African criminal law is defined as the negligent unlawful killing of another human being – roughly the equivalent of the English and US manslaughter.[53]

Progress of the trial[edit]

On the first and second day of the trial, a witness testified to hearing sounds of arguing that lasted about an hour. Several witnesses testified to what were described as a woman's screams and gunshots on the night Steenkamp died.[55][56][57][58][59][60]

On the morning of day three, the defence resumed the cross examination of witnesses claiming to have heard a woman's screams and gunshots. The defence sought to establish that this was in fact Pistorius screaming for help and that the "explosive sounds" heard was the door to the toilet being battered down. In the afternoon the prosecution continued with testimony relating to an incident when a shot was fired in a restaurant the year previously.[61][62][63][64]

On the fourth day, Pistorius' neighbour, Johan Stipp, a radiologist, testified that he found Pistorius praying over Steenkamp's body when he went over to help after being woken by what he described as the sound of gunshots and a woman screaming. Stipp testified that the first thing he remembered Pistorius saying when he saw him was "I shot her. I thought she was a burglar. I shot her." Stipp also testified that the light was on in the bathroom and he saw a figure moving as a woman screamed.[65][66][67][68]

On day five the court heard testimony from a former girlfriend of Pistorius and from a security guard at the estate where Pistorius lived, on duty the night of the events. The court adjourned until the following Monday 10 March 2014.[69][70][71][72]

The trial entered its sixth day on 10 March. Pistorius vomited multiple times in court, as the state pathologist delivered graphic testimony about the nature of Steenkamp's injuries.[73][74][75][76]

On 24 March, the court heard testimony about messages sent on iPhones between Pistorius and Steenkamp using WhatsApp. Ninety percent of them were described as loving and normal, but there were several from Steenkamp accusing Pistorius of jealousy and possessiveness. In one of them, sent less than three weeks before her killing, Steenkamp told Pistorius "I'm scared of you sometimes, of how you snap at me", and described his behaviour as "nasty".[77][78] The State rested their case on Tuesday March 25, 2014, having called 20 witnesses from an original list of 107.[79]

On 28 March, the trial was postponed until 7 April as one of the assessors fell ill.[34][80] On 7 April, Pistorius began testifying in his own defence at the trial.[81][82] The cross examination of Pistorius lasted for five days, and ended on 15 April.[83][84][85][86][87][88] Re-examination by defence lasted less than ten minutes, in the course of which defence asked Pistorius to read from a Valentine card which Steenkamp had given the athlete. Steenkamp had written: "I think today is a good day to tell you that, I love you". Pistorius previously testified that he opened the card on Steenkamp's birthday in August 2013.[89][88]

Following further defence testimony the trial was adjourned until 5 May.[90][91]

On 5 May, Johan Stander, manager of the estate where Pistorius lived, testified that Pistorius called at 3.18am saying “Please, please come to my house. I shot Reeva, I thought she was an intruder. Please, please come quick.” He went with his daughter and found Pistorius coming down the stairs with Steenkamp in his arms. “He was broken, he was screaming, he was crying, he was praying, I saw the truth that morning”, he said.[92][93]

On 6 May, a married couple who lived next to Pistorius' house testified that they both heard a man crying loudly in a high-pitched voice and calling three times for help.[94] Another immediate neighbour testified that she heard a man crying, describing the sounds as a "cry of pain".[95] Both sets of witnesses confirmed under cross-examination that they did not hear gunshots. There was no hearing Wednesday 7 May, due to the South African general election. Defence lawyer Barry Roux indicated that he would be finished with witness testimony by Tuesday 13 May.[96]

On 8 May, professor Christina Lundgren, an anaesthesiologist, testified that estimates of the time Steenkamp last ate were not reliable. The defence also called Yvette van Schalkwyk, a social worker and probation officer assigned to Pistorius, who had contacted the defence after reading newspaper reports suggesting Pistorius was acting and that his emotional responses were insincere. She said that in February 2013 she sat with him in the cells during his bail appearance, where he vomited twice, cried eighty percent of the time, and was in mourning and suffering emotionally, and that Pistorius told her that he missed Steenkamp a great deal. "He loved her. .. He couldn't think what her parents must be going through" she said. Under cross-examination, Lundgren conceded that Pistorius had not told her he was sorry he killed Reeva.[97] The defence ballistics expert and former police officer Tom Wolmarans began his testimony.[98]

On 9 May, Wolmarans countered a suggestion from a prosecution ballistics expert that Steenkamp cowered with her hand over her head. "The left hand cannot have been against her head because there were no wounds and no brain tissue on the inside of her hand" he said.[99][100]

On 12 May, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Merryl Vorster testified that Pistorius has a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and is a "distrusting and guarded" person hyper-vigilant about security, and also that in a fight or flight situation he is more likely to stand up to threatening situations than to flee, due to his disability.[101] The prosecution said they would bring an application for Pistorius' mental condition to be independently assessed under article 78 of the South African Criminal Procedure Act.[102]

On 13 May, the court heard concluding testimony from Dr. Vorster. Judge Masipa said she would rule the following day on the prosecution application to have Pistorius' mental condition evaluated.[103]

On 14 May, Judge Masipa granted the prosecution's application for Pistorius to be referred for mental evaluation.[104]

On 20 May, Judge Masipa ordered evaluation to take place as an out-patient at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital in Pretoria weekdays between 9am and 4pm, starting 26 May and lasting up to thirty days.[105][106] The evaluation found that Pistorius was not mentally incapacitated.[107]

On 30 June, surgeon Gerald Versfeld, who amputated Pistorius' lower legs when he was 11 months old, testified about the effects of Pistorius walking or standing on his stumps.[108] Acoustic engineer Ivan Lin testified that tests suggested that if Steenkamp was screaming in Pistorius’ toilet, it was “very unlikely” that the screams would be audible or intelligible from 177m away, and that “although we can typically distinguish male and female screams, you cannot do so reliably, without exception”.[109][110] Judge Masipa also issued an order that police officers depose affidavits about a missing electrical extension cord.[111]

On 1 July, Lin conceded it was possible that state witnesses heard screams from the Pistorius house from up to 177 meters away. Peet van Zyl, Pistorious's agent, testified that Pistorius was in a "loving and caring relationship" with Reeva Steenkamp. Van Zyl described the sprinter as "hypervigilant", and said he rarely lost his temper.[112]

On 2 July, defence lawyer Roux read excerpts from a psychologist's report, which stated "Mr Pistorius has been severely traumatised by the events that took place on 14 February 2013, He currently suffers from a post-traumatic stress disorder, and a major depressive disorder … The degree of anxiety and depression that is present is significant. He is also mourning the loss of Ms Steenkamp. Mr Pistorius is being treated and should continue to receive clinical care by a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist for his current condition. Should he not receive proper clinical care, his condition is likely to worsen and increase the risk for suicide."[113] The report did not confirm a diagnosis of "Generalised Anxiety Disorder" by a witness called by the defence, ""No evidence could be found to indicate that Mr Pistorius suffered from anxiety to the extent that it impaired his functioning prior to the incident in February 2013.". The report found some jealousy but no evidence of abuse by Pistorius: "There is evidence to indicate that Mr Pistorius was genuine with his feelings towards Miss Steenkamp and that they had a normal loving relationship. He did become insecure and jealous at times but this was normal for the specific situation. He would express his displeasure and irritation but would try and sort it out later by talking with Miss Steenkamp. Although the relationship was still young, there were no signs of abusive coercion like those often found in these kinds of relationships." [114] Wayne Derman, professor of sport and exercise medicine at the University of Cape Town, testified that Pistorius was "hyper-vigilant" and restless.[115]

On 3 July, under cross-examination, Derman testified "You've got a paradox of an individual who is supremely able, and you've got an individual who is significantly disabled". Derman, who had treated Pistorius over six years while working with South African Olympic and Paralympic teams, said Pistorius' anxieties included concern about flying. "He has a specific fear of being trapped somewhere without being able to move very rapidly." and that on the night he killed Steenkamp,"fleeing was not an option" as Pistorius was not wearing his articifial legs. Prosecutor Nel suggested Derman could not give evidence against his patient. "The truth would come before my patient," Derman responded.[116]

On 8 July, the defence closed its case. Defence lawyer Barry Roux protested "We were unable to call a number of witnesses because they refused, and didn't want their voices heard all over the world." Closing arguments were scheduled for 7 and 8 August.[117]

Notable media coverage[edit]

Pistorius in 2011

Print media[edit]

  • Time published a cover story titled "Pistorius and South Africa's culture of violence" in the 11 March 2013 issue of the magazine.[118][119]
  • Vanity Fair published a feature story about the incident titled "The Shooting Star and The Model" in the Crime section of their June 2013 issue.[120]
  • Pieces of the Puzzle: Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp Part One: The Killing by Laurianne Claase was published in 2013, initially as an e-book and subsequently in print. Claase plans to publish a book sequel after the trial has ended.[121][122]
  • On 4 March 2014, The Guardian published an article by South African crime novelist Margie Orford, "Oscar Pistorius trial: the imaginary black stranger at heart of the defence", describing how the case "taps into a painful narrative in which race, sex, power and violence converge".[123]
  • In his Business Day column published on 13 March 2014, Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University Anton Harber states that the trial represents a turning point for local newspapers unable to compete with "the speed and conversational nature of electronic media". He also notes that the fact that the presiding judge has "her finger on the off button for live broadcast" is restraining the behaviour of the media.[124]
  • Several cartoons about the case by award-winning South African cartoonist Zapiro have been published. A cartoon titled "St. Valentine's Day Shocker" published in the Mail & Guardian on 14 February 2013 depicts two scenarios, one portraying the culpable homicide version of events based on mistaken identity and the other portraying Pistorius as an Oscar winning actor.[125] A cartoon titled "Reeva Steenkamp as Lady Justice in Oscar Pistorius Trial" published in the The Times on 4 March 2014 depicts Steenkamp as Lady Justice running after Pistorius.[126]
  • A controversial Paddy Power advertisement captioned "money back if he walks" was published in British tabloid The Sun on 2 March 2014 as a publicity stunt. The UK Advertising Standards Authority found that Paddy Power breached the CAP Code and brought the advertising industry into disrepute after receiving a record number of 5,525 complaints that the advertisement made light of a murder trial, the death of a woman, domestic violence and disability.[127][128][129]

Radio, television, and film[edit]

  • On 11 March 2013, BBC Three aired an hour long documentary about the incident titled Oscar Pistorius: What Really Happened? Discovery Networks International acquired the broadcasting rights to the programme, which will be titled Blade Runner: The Untold Story in the United States.[130][131]
  • On 3 June 2013, Channel 5 aired two consecutive hour-long documentaries titled Why Did Oscar Pistorius Kill Our Daughter? and Pistorius Trial: The Key Questions.[132][133][134][135]
  • In February 2014 eNCA aired a half-hour documentary special about Steenkamp's life titled Reeva: The Model You Thought You Knew.[136]
  • On 29 January 2014, it was announced that South African satellite pay-channel DStv would launch a dedicated 24-hour channel providing in-depth coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial on 2 March 2014. It was DStv's first pop-up channel covering a major news story.[138][139]
  • ESPN, a TV channel focussing on sports-related programming, is covering the trial on their ESPN3 network.[140]
  • On 16 June 2014, 48 hours aired an hour-long documentary titled Oscar Pistorius: Shots in the Dark.[141]
  • On 6 July 2014, Australia's Seven Network dedicated an hour-long episode of Sunday Night to a story titled Running Scared which was their own investigation into the likelihood of Pistorius' guilt. The story included Pistorius' own reenactments as well as audio recordings and animations of the scene, and gave much heavier weight to claims of his innocence.[142] The following day, many in South Africa, including Pistorius' family and legal team, slammed the broadcast, saying the reenactment footage had been illegally obtained. They claimed the footage was created solely for trial preparation and that the US company engaged to create it had breached contract by selling it to Seven Network.[143] Seven Network refused to apologise, stating that they stood by their decision to air the story and denying any involvement in illegal procurement of the footage. They reminded the public that Steenkamp's family participated in the creation of the story, citing their interviews that went to air.[citation needed]

Social media[edit]

  • On 14 February 2014, South African comedian Trevor Noah posted on Twitter: "And the Oscar goes to – Jail". Noah received criticism from his followers and other South Africans. People who responded to this post include Top Billing presenter Janez Vermeiren, who responded: "@Trevornoah c'mon you are more than talented and have enough followers, you don't need to seek attention like this!"[144][145]
  • On 23 February 2014, Pistorius's PR team launched a Twitter account called Factual Updates which operates under the Twitter handle @OscarHardTruth in order to provide new information regarding the case as the trial unfolds.[146] On 17 March 2014, Pistorius's media manager Anneliese Burgess released a statement saying the account would only be used to alert followers of media statements and articles and would be used as a stand-alone communication trial once the trial had concluded.[147]
  • Writing in her Daily Maverick column published on 4 March 2014, Sisonke Msimang finds vibrancy and emerging self-confidence reflected in the local social media coverage of the trial. While the trial inevitably represents a fall from grace prompting international media accounts of a country 'at war with itself', South Africans are learning that such accounts are better told by themselves.[148]
  • On 14 April 2014, former Sunday Times columnist, Jani Allan published an open letter to Pistorius on her blog.[149] The piece was republished by the Daily Maverick the following day.[150] Allan described Pistorius as a "faux hero" and compared him to Eugene Terre'Blanche. She also suggested that he had taken acting lessons in preparation for his court appearance. A spokesperson for the Pistorius family has denied this; "We deny in the strongest terms the contents of her letter in as far it relates to our client and further deny that our client has undergone any acting lessons or any form of emotional coaching."[151][152]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]