Oscar Pistorius’ best defense in his murder trial has been to portray himself as vulnerable.
Yet his career as courageous track star exemplified the opposite. The “Blade Runner” was a man who never considered his disability to be a disadvantage or weakness. He fought for and earned the right to become the first double-amputee to run against able-bodied athletes at the Olympics.
Now he is fighting for his freedom in a South African courtroom, where he stands accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day, 2013.
Pistorius contends pumping four bullets through a locked bathroom door was a “mistake” he committed when he was in a “fearful state,” thinking that an intruder was inside his home. He was on his stumps when he fired the shots, unable to run away from a presumed attacker. His prosthetic legs were in the bedroom, where he thought Steenkamp was still in bed, he testified.
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The state argues Pistorius killed Steenkamp in a rage, after an argument. He was a gun freak who carried his pistol everywhere, and he had a temper that scared Steenkamp. She was cowering behind the locked door of the toilet cubicle, said prosecutor Gerrie Nel, nicknamed “the bull terrier” for his intense cross-examinations.
The case of the celebrity athlete and dead model has riveted South Africa and the world, which had been charmed by the plucky Pistorius at the 2012 London Games. He was born without fibulas, had both legs amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old and was raised by a mother who gave him no special treatment.
In London, Pistorius recalled his late mother Sheila telling him and his brother, “’Carl, you put on your shoes and Oscar you put on your legs, and that’s the last I want to hear about it,’” he said. “I didn’t grow up thinking I had a disability. I grew up thinking I had different shoes.’’
Even Pistorius’ rivals marveled at his ability to run the 400 meters in 45 seconds and redefine the limits of body and mind.
“I see Oscar as another athlete, another competitor and, most importantly, as another person,” Grenada’s Kirani James said at the Olympics after Pistorius, wearing his $50,000 Flex-Foot Cheetahs, advanced to the semifinals. “We should respect and admire him.”
But behind the bright smile and humble tributes to “my 89-year-old gran,” Pistorius was a guy obsessed with guns who often drove recklessly fast and was known to be possessive and jealous when it came to women. During his five days on the stand, he was questioned about incidents in which he shot a gun under a restaurant table in Johannesburg and through the sun roof of a car after he was stopped by police.
Nel displayed a graphic crime scene photo of Steenkamp’s head during the trial. She was hit by three Black Talon rounds from Pistorius’ 9 mm pistol.
“Look at it!” he shouted at Pistorius, who looked away, and, weeping, told the judge he had cradled Steenkamp’s head after he broke down the door and found her on the blood-soaked floor. He said he was “tormented” by the memory.
Nel said her head had “exploded,” just like a watermelon Pistorius had shot at a range — a scene that was caught on video and played in court. Amid laughter, Pistorius was heard to say, “It’s softer than brain. It’s like a zombie-stopper.”
If Pistorius, 27, is found guilty of premeditated murder he faces 25 years to life in prison. If he is found guilty of culpable homicide or manslaughter, he could be jailed for 15 years. There are no juries at trials in South Africa. Pistorius’ fate will be decided by judge Thokozile Masipa, former social worker and crime reporter who became the country’s second black female judge in 1998. She’s presiding over one of the most high-profile cases in post-apartheid South Africa, at which live broadcasts are being permitted for the first time.
Pistorius was evasive when asked: Why wouldn’t he have checked on Steenkamp and alerted her to hide behind the bed or call police while he was still in the bedroom before he went around the corner to the bathroom, where he said he heard the sound of the window sliding open? Why didn’t he fire a warning shot? Why was the door locked? When did he hear her scream? The prosecution argues that his deliberate actions show he intended to kill someone.
On the last day of his testimony, Pistorius read the inscription on a Valentine’s Day card from Steenkamp: “I think today is a good day to tell you I love you.”
He broke down in tears, as he had several times in outpourings of emotion Nel dismissed as performances. Pistorius’ claims of vulnerability, first in terror, now in grief, have been the most convincing part of his case. The evidence is muddy. There were no witnesses. Only he knows what he was thinking when he pulled the trigger.