Nowhere to Run: Olympian Charged with Girlfriend’s Murder

Last week, 26-year-old Oscar Pistorius was a history-making Olympic athlete. This week, he is an accused murderer.

You do not need to know anything more to make certain, justifiable presumptions: that his ascent to athletic glory made him a hero in the eyes of many; that his competition on sport’s largest global stage made him an idol; that his responsibility for a shooting death has made him a pariah. Now turn all those highs and lows up a notch. In fact, multiply them by a factor of 10.

Oscar Pistorius broke Olympic records by competing against sprinters with two feet when he has none. He is famous for being the “Blade Runner,” a man who runs like the wind with nothing but J-shaped carbon-fiber prostheses below his knees. The person he killed was his girlfriend.

That girlfriend was Reeva Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model, reality television star, and law school graduate. Like Pistorius, she is from South Africa, a country with the world’s highest rate of women being murdered by their husbands or lovers. The tragedy here includes an eerie irony: Ms. Steenkamp dedicated much of her abbreviated life to championing women’s rights and speaking out against the ravages of domestic violence in her home country.

She died in the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day after Pistorius fired four shots from a 9mm pistol, three of which hit her.

Oscar Pistorius lost both of his legs below the knee when he was only 11 months old, having been born without a fibula connecting either of his knees to either of his ankles. Two months later, he was fitted with prostheses. Four months after that, he learned to walk.

His physical limitations never seemed to present, well, physical limitations. The first time he competed against other amputees was at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens. By 2012, he was one of the top-ranked 400-meter runners in the world, and he ultimately won a bid to compete in the London Olympics against the likes of Usain Bolt. In so doing, he became the first person to compete in an Olympic running event without biologically intact legs.

In an Olympics full of headlines, his story dominated. He became internationally recognized. He gained corporate sponsors. His career raced forward.

He charged through his life in similar fashion. He got a tattoo on a whim one night when he could not sleep. He crashed his boat into a pier and required 172 stitches. He lost a prosthetic leg when the dirt bike he was riding clipped a fence. He likes to drive his car at speeds over 100 mph. He doesn’t sleep well, his mind always racing.

Then there is the gun. He owns at least the pistol mentioned above, and he visited a shooting range by his house to target practice when he could not sleep. He was delighted when he taught a reporter how to shoot, and the reporter showed promise of being a good enough shot that he could be “pretty deadly.”

The gun is about more than just sport, though. Pistorius’ home is in an exclusive gated community in Pretoria, South Africa. Despite the 24-hour-security guard, Pistorius was always anxious about local crime. It is true that burglaries are rampant and murders are common in his hometown. It is also true that Pistorius made no secret of his willingness to go into “combat recon mode” when he suspected there was an intruder in the house; there is no public report that his suspicions were ever proven right. Indeed, he once mistakenly sprang into action when he heard his washing machine running.

Which brings us back to the early morning of February 14, 2013.

Police claim that earlier in the night, a neighbor heard voices arguing at the house. Then, according to police and prosecutors, Pistorius rose from the bed he was sharing with Ms. Steenkamp, walked down a hallway leading to his bathroom, and discovered that Ms. Steenkamp had locked herself into the toilet, which was closed off from the rest of the bathroom by a wooden door. They say he shot through that door four times, with three bullets striking and killing her. They also have not denied leaked reports claiming a bloodied cricket bat was found at the scene, along with boxes of steroids. Reports have also surfaced of a previous altercation between Pistorius and another woman in 2009.

The picture the authorities are painting is one of a paranoid, trigger-happy and angry-prone young man who resolved a domestic dispute with a gun. Their message, perhaps, is that Pistorius may have felt unsafe in his home because of outside threats, but the biggest danger was the one he posed inside of it, himself a product of the violent culture that, in turn, he pointed to as the source of his own fears.

Pistorius’ side of the story, of course, is very different, with the only carry-over being an acknowledgement of the rampant crime in Pretoria. According to him, he and Ms. Steenkamp had enjoyed a peaceful evening at his home, and had gone to bed early. He woke up in the early morning to bring a fan, sitting on his bedroom balcony, inside. As he returned to the bedroom, he closed the sliding glass door and shut all the blinds, so the room was completely dark. At that point, he heard noises coming from the bathroom. He immediately became alarmed, as there are no security bars across his bathroom windows. What is more, contractors had been doing work on his home, and they had left ladders up outside that led to those unsecured bathroom windows.

So, Pistorius says, he made his way to the bed and grabbed that same 9mm pistol from underneath it. Too scared to turn on the lights, he moved in the dark, assuming that Ms. Steenkamp was still asleep in the bed. He arrived in the bathroom, saw the window was indeed open, and located the source of the sound: it was coming from behind the door to the toilet.

Deciding quickly on a course of action, he fired at the door and simultaneously yelled at Ms. Steenkamp to call the police. He backed out of the bathroom, returned to the bedroom, and realized Ms. Steenkamp wasn’t responding to his instructions. That, he claims, was the first time he realized she might have been the person in the toilet.

At that point, he says he put on his prosthetic legs, rushed back to the toilet, and tried to kick down the door. When that didn’t work, he says he grabbed his cricket bat and bashed the door in. On the other side, he found Ms. Steenkamp, lying in a pool of her own blood, the victim of what he insists was a tragic accident.

Police arrived. They realized that Pistorius was the only other person in the house at the time of Ms. Steenkamp’s death. They arrested him and charged him with premeditated murder. (Under South African law, that charge carries a minimum life sentence. There is no death penalty in South Africa.)

Speed has found its way into Pistorius’ life yet again.

Under American legal standards, the speed with which police arrested Pistorius is remarkable. So is the speed with which he was charged with murder. And the speed with which he has been found guilty in the court of public opinion was lightning fast. (Don’t believe me? Go read any message board associated with any reporting on this story.)

Both the prosecution and Pistorius’ defense team have already had to assemble evidence and present their theories of the case, just days after the killing occurred. A bail hearing is under way in South Africa, with each side arguing over not just whether Pistorius is a flight risk, but whether he committed any crime. On the first day, the prosecution presented the same case that has already been tried in the media, cementing the general conclusion that Pistorius is guilty.

But the next day, the defense stood up and poked holes in every major prong of the government’s case. The neighbor who claimed to have overheard arguing? That “witness” lived about a quarter of a mile away, miscounted the number of shots fired, and couldn’t identify any of the voices. The bloodied cricket bat? Not only did Pistorius admit to using it to bash in the door, but Ms. Steenkamp’s body showed no signs of assault (other than the bullet wounds). The boxes of supposed steroids? Herbal supplements. The 2009 alleged run-in with another woman? All charges against Pistorius were dropped, and Pistorius sued both the woman and the police who investigated him.

Suddenly, the state’s case – which depends upon proving that Pistorius acted with premeditation and the intent to kill – does not look like a proverbial slam dunk. Not so fast, you might say.

Even if Pistorius is to be believed, though, the ending is not improved.

A young woman died for no reason.

A young man used a gun in supposed self-defense and was proven to have made a fatal mistake.

A gun in the supposed right hands in the supposed right circumstances created the absolute wrong result.

Two people who respected the scourge of violence – one by fighting against it, the other by arming against it – met their physical or psychological end in the face of it.

It all really stops you in your tracks.

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