Oscar Pistorius has never denied responsibility for killing his girlfriend, model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp, on Feb. 14, 2013. The central question that remains unanswered is whether the Olympian’s killing of Steenkamp was premeditated murder or a case of mistaken identity. Prosecutors contend that the world-renown athlete’s actions were deliberate in the aftermath of an alleged fight between the two lovers. The defense claims that Pistorius was alarmed by noises in the middle of the night and mistakenly believed intruders had entered his Pretoria, South Africa home, putting his and Steenkamp’s lives in jeopardy. The track star claims he took the actions he did that night in order to protect himself and Steenkamp against harm. Unbeknownst to Pistorius, Steenkamp was the one in the bathroom making noises when he shot four rounds into the door, killing his girlfriend.
Both Pistorius and Steenkamp had made names for themselves in the public arena, especially among South African social circles. The athlete and his model girlfriend were young, attractive, and ready to take the world by storm. Pistorius, 27, gained international fame as the first double-amputee sprinter to successfully compete in both Paralympic and Olympic events. He was dubbed “Blade Runner” for the special prostheses he uses to compete. The track star won six gold medals at the Paralympics; however, he failed to medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. While Steenkamp was a 29-year-old model and burgeoning reality TV star, as well as a law school graduate at the time of her death.
Many factors will be examined in determining whether Oscar Pistorius’ killing of Reeva Steenkamp was murder or a case of mistaken identity. Many experts believe the final determination will depend on witness testimony and forensic evidence. There will also be consideration of the high crime rate and prevalence of robbery in South Africa. Moreover, the final determination will be made by one person–Judge Thokozile Masipa. Jury trials were outlawed in South Africa in 1969 during apartheid (minority white rule) over fears of racial prejudice by jurors. The judge herself is a rarity given the circumstances of the country. Judge Masipa was a former newspaper crime reporter who became a lawyer in 1990. She was the second black woman to be given an appointment to judge in the country’s history. Her reputation precedes her and she is known to be tough but fair. The judge will also have two assessors that will help her in reviewing trial testimony, forensic evidence, and reaching a verdict.
In addition to the murder charge, Pistorius is also facing illegal ammunition charges and two counts of discharging a firearm. The firearms charges are not directly related to his girlfriend’s shooting, but the prosecution intends to use them to establish a pattern of volatile behavior. Moreover, the judge has the discretion to find Pistorius guilty on a lesser charge of negligent homicide (manslaughter) if she does not agree that the evidence supports premeditated murder. If the track star is found guilty of premeditated murder, there is a mandatory life sentence involved which would last 25 years while a negligent homicide conviction would possibly involve a sentence of up to 15 years. However, with the lesser charge, there are more sentencing options available and even the possibility of limited or no prison time. There is not a death penalty option in South Africa.
Whether Oscar Pistorius’ killing of Reeva Steenkamp is determined to be premeditated murder or a case of mistaken identity, it has been stated that the trial will last approximately six weeks. If the sprinter’s actions are determined to be intentional, there is an appeals court and process in South Africa. However, the process could take many years and the court has wider latitude than U.S. appeals courts due to the fact the verdict is determined by the judge, not a jury. If the court agrees with the defense argument of mistaken identity, the drama will continue for Pistorius with regards to the question of lesser charges, the additional firearms charges he would still be facing, and the possibility of civil litigation from the Steenkamp family.
Written and Edited by Leigh Haugh
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