South African Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius is standing trial for the alleged murder of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, whom he shot and killed on Valentine’s Day last year.
He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and denies murdering her, claiming he fired four shots through a locked bathroom door because he thought she was an intruder.
While that might sound implausible considering Pistorius knew Steenkamp was in his house with him, some South Africans might be inclined to believe his version of events.
Toronto Star sports columnist Cathal Kelly wrote an editorial last year that gives a good idea of how the case looks from the perspective of a South African.
South Africans have a fearful mindset and have trained themselves to be constantly wary of safety risks within their own homes, she writes. The country is so racked with violence that many middle-class houses are surrounded by 10-foot walls and come equipped with “rape doors” to keep intruders out of bedrooms.
Kelly writes: “We spent six weeks [in South Africa] covering the 2010 World Cup. There is no sufficient way to explain the paranoia about home security that grips average South Africans, except to say that fear animates much of their lives.”
In an affidavit, Pistorius claimed he had this kind of fear. He said that in the early morning hours of Feb. 14, 2013, he woke up and heard a noise in the bathroom. He claims he thought Steenkamp was still in bed.
He writes in the affidavit:
I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside. Although I did not have my prosthetic legs on I have mobility on my stumps.
Pistorius says he grabbed his gun from under his bed and screamed at the supposed intruder to get out. He says he noticed the bathroom window was open and he thought the intruder was in the toilet area, which has a separate door, because the door was closed and he heard movement.
He felt vulnerable without his prosthetic legs on and fired shots through the toilet door, according to his affidavit. Pistorius claims it wasn’t until later that he realised Steenkamp wasn’t in bed and that she might be inside the bathroom.
The prosecution doesn’t buy it, and there is certainly evidence that is working against Pistorius.
Prosecutors say Pistorius intentionally killed Steenkamp during an argument that night. Witnesses said they heard a woman screaming before the gunshots rang out. Steenkamp was also found in the bathroom wearing daytime clothes and carrying two iPhones, which pokes a hole in the idea that she got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.
And Pistorius didn’t call police right after the shooting — he instead chose to call his friends. When a security guard called Pistorius to ask about the gunshots, he reportedly told him that everything was fine.
Despite this evidence, Kelly argues that it might not be hard to convince some South Africans that Pistorius is telling the truth. She writes:
You may not believe it. I may not believe it. A great, great many South Africans will believe it — not all of it perhaps, but the general gist. Enough to arouse reasonable doubt, and certainly enough to convince them there was no premeditation, regardless of its legal definition.
South Africa’s violent crime rates are some of the highest in the world. In 2011, the United Nations released its global study on homicide. South Africa’s murder rate per 100,000 residents was 30.9, while the murder rate in the United States was 4.7.
And Pistorius has other factors working in his favour — what many in South Africa see as an inept police force and unreliable justice system.
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