Why I Am Totally Hooked on the Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial
The only person who will ever know for certain whether Oscar Pistoriusmeant to kill Reeva Steenkamp, or knew he was shooting her but didn't consider the consequences, or simply did not realise he was shooting anyone because she managed to stay superhumanly silent while being shot through a bathroom door with brutal expanding bullets, is, of course, Pistorius himself. But everyone who has been gripped by Pistoration for the past week – a state of being when one has plenty of work to get on with but instead spends all day watching the Pistorius trial – will have some pretty strong opinions on the subject. Especially now that state prosecutor Gerrie Nel's cross-examination of the athlete has, after five pitiless (Nel) and retch-filled (Pistorius) days, come to an end.
The public is now so used to the idea of wealthy and well-protected male celebrities being accused of committing crimes against vulnerable women that it often feels like the news value of such stories lies in the exposure of the crime, rather than the crime itself. What is more novel is to watch the accused male celebrity be called to account for it, and to see him wriggle and squirm. Pistorius once felt overwhelmingly "agitated" that a police officer had dared to ask to see his gun. He once had a friend take the blame when he shot a gun in a restaurant – which wasn't his fault anyway because, according to Pistorius, the gun was "unsafe" and so, as often seems to happen with guns in Pistorius' hands, must have gone off by itself. To watch Pistorius sob and bleat "m'lady" at the end of each of his answers in court is to watch a man appear to confront the results of his actions for the first time in his life.
I can mark my life stages by the celebrity trials I have watched on TV during odd hours of the day: OJ Simpson's, of course, as a teenager in 1995, and, earlier, as a child, the now largely forgotten William Kennedy Smith trial in 1991 (Smith was a Kennedy family scion accused of rape). Both pretty much set the template of how modern-day celebrity cases play out: male celebrity is accused of a terrible crime against a woman; cocky male celebrity arms himself to the teeth with flashy lawyers; male celebrity is found not guilty (and, in the case of Simpson, later found guilty of another crime, and, in the case of Smith, settled with another woman over charges of sexual harassment years later). To watch Pistorius be eviscerated by Nel, awkwardly shifting between claiming that he fired in self-defence or by accident, is a very different experience. Nel has managed to nail an image of the accused as a self-entitled, spoilt man with anger issues, an inability to take responsibility and a fondness for guns. "Who should we blame for the fact that you shot her? Should we blame the government?" sneered Nel. Of course, Pistorius could not really answer, and how could he? He can't even accept the responsibility for when guns go off in his own hands, let alone for who they're aimed at.
For some, this image of Pistorius will not come entirely as a surprise. His anger issues and self-entitlement have been noted before, not least when he – to his astonishment – came second in the 200m final at the London Paralympics. Pistorius promptly accused the winner, Brazil's Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira, of having an unfair advantage with his blades,even when Pistorius himself had long fought against that same accusation when running against non-disabled runners. Petulance does not make a man a murderer, but it does suggest someone who doesn't consider the consequences of his rage when he doesn't get his way.
Then there is the violence. In South Africa, a woman is killed every eight hours by her partner – a statistic that takes one's breath away. Even more astonishingly, this figure is slightly better than it was at the end of the 20th century. What has become very clear is how comfortable Pistorius felt around guns, with acquaintances testifying to his habit of carrying one on him at all times, and his apparently unthinking purchase of the most destructive bullets on the market. "I don't understand the question," he replied when asked who should be blamed for the black talon bullets that tore so destructively through Steenkamp's body.
Questions about the legitimacy of Pistorius's tears in court have occupied many viewers. Nel accused him of crying to buy time while he rethought his defence. Steenkamp's family have been, understandably, even more sceptical: "He is trying to convince the court that they were really close, and that he cared for her. It's not true," Steenkamp's sister Simone said in an interview (she also disputed Pistorius' claims that he and Reeva were talking about moving in together). What is more certain is that Pistorius is certainly feeling sorry for himself, complaining at times, "I'm under a lot of pressure. I'm defending my life."
Steenkamp, of course, had no such opportunity, and that is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this celebrity trial: the presence of the female victim. She is not being judged, nor called a slut, nor forgotten. The other big TV event of the past week was the finale of True Detective, a great show but – like so many murder stories on TV – one that reduced women to bodies and bitches. Steenkamp's innocence, by contrast, has been all too obvious, every day. One of the last things Pistorius was asked to do yesterday before he left the stand was to read out Steenkamp's last Valentine's Day card to him: "Roses are red/Violets are blue/I think today is a good day to tell you that I love you." A few hours later, he shot her dead.