Pretoria, South Africa – Outside the Pretoria High Court where Oscar Pistorius was found innocent of murder, casually dressed locals and passers-by were keen to give their views on the case. Once the lead characters had melted away – the lawyers, Pistorius and his family – they swarmed to journalists’ microphones, demanding their say. “I think he might get five years,” said one woman, while another pondered if he deserved a second chance.
Although Pistorius, 27, was found innocent of murder, he was found guilty of negligently killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29, and faces a sentence ranging between no jail time and 15 years in prison.
The case was the first in South Africa to be shown live on television, with a 24-hour channel being dedicated to it. South Africans have been able to – alongside Judge Thokozile Masipa – pore over the minutiae of court processes including Pistorius’ mobile phone records, his fumbling explanations on the stand and his former relationships.
For many the case has been highly personal and a chance to validate their own views on gun use, gender-based violence, and crime. Their minds were made up months ago, and Judge Masipa’s ruling is merely a confirmation or rejection of what they feel they already know.
Forensic criminologist Dr Jackie de Wet said the trial had formed a type of unscripted reality show, unlike any other. “This trial forced this whole thing into the public consciousness and people got wrapped up in it,” he told Al Jazeera.
Damage to reputation
For Pistorius it has not been a show with a free ticket. Even if he is not given jail time, the damage to his reputation, the exposure of his private life, and flatline of his career may be hard to recover from.
Pistorius’ fall from his hero status as an Olympian and disability advocate began in February 2013 when he shot and killed Steenkamp, a model, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day.
Pistorius said he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar, and shot her four times through a locked toilet door in self-defence. He maintained that being a double amputee in crime-ridden South Africa had left him feeling vulnerable to attack.
The state brought charges of murder against him, saying that he killed Steenkamp in cold blood after a fight. This was just months after he had attained international recognition when he was the first double amputee to compete against able-bodied athletes in the 2012 London Olympics.
There's a high likelihood that Oscar will disappear into obscurity. His immediate future is likely jail time and then after that he can try to pick up the pieces of his life.
Prior to the trial, the public interest in Pistorius was based on his contributions as an athlete and advocate, but media fascination around him quickly took on a more gossipy edge. Although legal commentators have lauded the contribution the trial made to the average South African’s understanding of local laws, now that the legal processes are winding down, what reason is there for an ongoing interest in Pistorius?
“He’s still a celebrity but what is he contributing [to society] now; what is the good we can take out of the Oscar story?” asked de Wet. He said once the hype had dissipated, ordinary South Africans would likely ask the same question, and lose interest.
It seems unlikely that Pistorius will return to a professional sporting career. “There’s a high likelihood that Oscar will disappear into obscurity,” said de Wet. “His immediate future is likely jail time and then after that, he can try to pick up the pieces of his life.”
Even for his supporters, the microscope of the trial has put his weaknesses under close scrutiny. Pistorius had always been a strong advocate for disabled people and was not afraid to stir controversy with his assertion that he should be allowed to race against able-bodied athletes. His career, both on and off the track, was largely built on his attitude that a disability did not have to be a disadvantage.
But disability became a major theme in the trial when his lawyers asked that he not be judged in his case by the same standards as able-bodied people. In South Africa, when determining culpable homicide – which is the lesser charge to murder and means a person was negligent in killing another – his defence team asked that he be judged, not as a reasonable person, but as a reasonable disabled person.
This went fundamentally against what Pistorius had always stood and advocated for.
On the stand, defence witness Professor Wayne Derman said Pistorius was “split in his personality … the one a vulnerable, scared disabled person; the other, a strong physical person achieving beyond expectation and finding reward for it both intra-physically and interpersonally”.
But this line of argument failed Pistorius when Judge Masipa ruled that he had acted negligently.
She said that while a disabled man may be seen as vulnerable; women, children and the elderly were also in a compromised position in a country with a very high crime rate. “The explanation of the conduct of the accused is just that – an explanation. It doesn’t excuse it,” she said. “Many have been victims of violent crime but have not resorted to sleeping with firearms under their pillows.”
Although legal experts felt Judge Masipa had been accurate in her assessment that there had been insufficient evidence to convict Pistorius on the premeditated murder of Steenkamp, they did feel there was a strong case for a secondary murder charge.
This charge is known as murder Dolus Eventualis. In South African law, intention is necessary for a guilty murder verdict and Dolus Eventualis is a type of intention. What this means is that a person foresaw the possibility that another person would be killed as a result of their actions, but went ahead regardless.
The state argued that just because Pistorius killed his girlfriend instead of a burglar, he could not use that as a defence. They said that by firing four shots into a small toilet cubicle with a particularly dangerous type of ammunition, he had intended to kill.
The issue of who Pistorius had intended to kill has been a subject of debate in South Africa since the crime was first committed, as in the former apartheid state socio-economic status is still divided largely along racial lines.
Members of the public questioned whether the loss of a life of a black man, who is typically seen as the face of crime in South Africa, would have been weighted in the same way, or caused the same level of public outrage, as the loss of the life of a white woman had.
Steenkamp’s family have been largely silent throughout the trial and controversially have only done interviews with news organisations with which they have a financial relationship. They were seen crying and comforting each other in court when Pistorius was declared not guilty of murder.
Professor Robert Peacock, vice president of the World Society of Victimology, said that if the verdict was not what a victim’s family expected it to be, they could experience secondary victimisation and almost relive the trauma of losing their loved one.
For Pistorius the legal road ahead of him is likely still a long one, with sentencing due to happen in a few weeks. After that, he will know if he will be facing time in jail, or the almost equally momentous task of putting his life back together.