The Pistorius trial is over. There will be sentencing; there may be appeals. But for now, it’s over. Oscar Pistorius will probably go to prison, at least if Judge Thokozile Masipa lives up to her reputation as a heavy sentencer. He has been found guilty of culpable homicide. So why do many of us feel so deflated?
“I can’t believe that they believe it was an accident.”
That’s what Reeva Steenkamp’s mother June told NBC in her first interview after the verdict. Judging by social media, by callers to talk radio, by people on the street, she was not alone.
But Oscar Pistorius walked out of the North Gauteng High Court today cleared of murder. He is officially not a murderer. Whatever happens to him now, his name, his reputation – his all-important brand – will not suffer that taint. Oscar Pistorius did not murder anyone.
Instead, he was “negligent”. He was “reckless”. Reeva Steenkamp died because Oscar Pistorius was negligent and reckless.
This law business is a funny one. When many of us think of “culpable homicide”, we think of a driver accidentally hitting someone with their car. We don’t think of someone walking up to a tiny toilet door and blasting four bullets through it. Four closely-grouped bullets, not a wild spray. A toilet so small that there was literally nowhere to hide.
That sounds a lot more like murder to many of us.
It’s even more confusing because, as South African comedian Trevor Noah pointed out on Twitter, musician Jub Jub was convicted of murder in 2012 for killing four boys by hitting them with his car while drag racing drunk and high. There was never any suggestion that Jub Jub had deliberately sought out the boys and mowed them down. It was an “accident”. But Jub Jub went down for murder, not culpable homicide.
As I say, it’s all very confusing to us legal thickies.
I don’t think many of us thought that Pistorius was going to get done for premeditated murder. Even the most hardline Pistorius detractor would have to admit that the state didn’t have much of a case. There was no smoking gun. There was not enough evidence that an argument between Steenkamp and Pistorius took place, however much people may have intuitively felt that that’s what must have happened.
I didn’t speak to a single trial journalist or lawyer before the verdict who thought Pistorius would get convicted for premeditated murder. But I spoke to a whole bunch who thought he would go down for murder – not necessarily of Reeva, but of whoever he thought was in the toilet. That’s because it seems insane that you could pump four bullets through a locked door at someone in a tiny room and not have it called murder. Whether that person was Reeva Steenkamp, or whether that person was the terrifying black intruder who haunted Pistorius’s nightmares.
The law, in Judge Masipa’s interpretation, thinks otherwise. Judge Masipa also thinks that Pistorius’s post-shooting behaviour – crying, praying to God, screaming for help – is a sign that he did not foresee that his actions could lead to death.
Many acts of murderous rage are followed by just this kind of penitence, but that’s the kind of thing we have to let go now.
There is so much that doesn’t make sense. I have followed this trial from its very first moment, spent countless days sitting on the hard benches of the North Gauteng High Court, heard hour after hour of evidence from both state and defence, and there is so much I still don’t understand.
What, in the end, was Oscar Pistorius’s defence?
Was it that he acted on reflex, his finger involuntarily pressing the trigger out of panic and anxiety? But Judge Masipa indicated that she would not accept a “startle reflex” defence.
Was it putative private defence – that he genuinely believed his life was in danger and took the steps he believed necessary to defend himself? But Pistorius said he never intended to shoot anyone. Masipa said that the state was “correct” in saying that if he never intended to shoot anyone, he couldn’t rely on putative private defence.
She also said that though his disability might make him vulnerable, plenty of other people were vulnerable too, and it wouldn’t be reasonable for them all to arm themselves when threatened.
So which of his defences was it, exactly, which succeeded?
Is it just, essentially, “it was an accident and I didn’t mean it”?
Judge Masipa has accepted Pistorius’s story about the intruder. She was left with no option, because the state didn’t do enough to build an alternate case, and it was the state’s job to prove guilt, rather than Pistorius’s job to prove innocence.
(I confess: there were times, listening to Masipa’s verdict, when I started to question the very fundaments of our legal system. I started thinking that, in cases like this – where a young woman’s body was riddled with bullets and the man who admitted pulling the trigger sat in the dock – maybe the accused should have to prove his innocence. I started thinking this quite hard. Blame the heresy on the length of the trial.)
Many people do not, and never will, accept Pistorius’s story about the intruder, due to the many aspects of the story that Masipa termed “peculiar”. It’s exhausting to rehash them here. They have been aired thousands of times over the past 18 months. Why didn’t he ask her if she’d heard a noise? Why didn’t he check the bed to make sure she was there? Why didn’t she phone the police, if he was yelling at her to do so? How is any of this even possible?
But the intruder story is now the story. We can’t talk about violence against women, or how domestic violence spans all sectors of society, or how women’s bodies become the site on which the rage of angry men is vented. Because that’s not what happened here.
At most, we can urge greater caution with weapons. Ask people to consider keeping their guns in a safe, like they’re supposed to, instead of under their beds. Ask people to consider not reflexively cocking their guns when they hear a noise in their house.
Ask people to please check where their loved ones are before blasting four holes through a door, and a woman’s body.
We have to maintain our faith in the law. It is one of the cornerstones of a functional society. Legal experts can tussle endlessly over dolus eventualis, and whether Masipa’s interpretation was correct. Prominence has been given to the views of those who say she is wrong, but there are other, quieter voices who say she was spot-on.
But we have to maintain our faith in the law, even while we who are not legal experts gesture in hopeless frustration to the fact that a rhino poacher was sentenced in July to 77 years in prison, while Oscar Pistorius sleeps tonight in his uncle’s house. We can’t always get the verdict that seems intuitively “right”.
No verdict could have brought Reeva Steenkamp back to life. But at the end of all of this, it is hard not to feel exhausted, and jaded. It is hard to imagine what the Steenkamp family must endure, to accept that their daughter died from “negligence”. The sight of Reeva’s cousin Kim collapsing into sobs as the final verdict was read was testament enough to their pain.
Only Oscar Pistorius knows what happened on the night when he killed Reeva Steenkamp, and he will carry that night with him for the rest of his life. Perhaps his ultimate reckoning will come not in front of a judge – but in front of the mirror. DM
Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.