Thokozile Masipa, the chief judge in the trial of Oscar Pistorius recently rebuked the prosecuting attorney, Gerrie Nel, for laughing in court during his cross-examination of Pistorius. She also told spectators in the public gallery that the trial was not entertainment. Indeed so. A young woman (Reeva Steenkamp) has lost her life and a young man (Pistorius) is on trial for his life. We are a long way from South Africa, yet I find the case intriguing. From the beginning of this ongoing tragedy, I have been troubled by certain aspects of the case, and I would like to discuss them here.
First, it needs to be understood that South Africa is a dangerous place to live. Statistics show an average murder rate of 35 to 50 people a day, and in 2012 there were 65 000 sex crimes. Those who can afford to live in gated communities (like Pistorius) reside behind the protection of fences and armed guards. Those who can not, live in fear.
Burglary is rife, also, and is frequently accompanied by violence. Even a simple car ride can be fraught with danger, as carjacking is another common crime. I once asked a lady who lives in South Africa what happens if your car breaks down. "Oh", she replied grimly," you don't want to do that". It is understandable, then, that there is widespread gun ownership for self and property defence and it is against this menacing background that we need to look at the Pistorius case.
Which leads to my first question - since Pistorius lived in a secure compound with armed guards not far away, why did he not simply phone for help when he heard the noise in the bathroom? Incredibly, he did not even put the light on in the bedroom - which would have shown Steenkamp to be missing. Besides this, there is the seemingly minor point that Pistorius says quite specifically that he thought the sound was caused by "an intruder" - but how did he know there was only one? There could easily have been two, or even three, and they, also, could have been armed. What follows next requires an explanatory diagram and can be found HERE.
What he did next is difficult to comprehend. Home Defence experts in the USA train people to go for the safe option if you have intruders in your home. This involves moving yourself and your family to a place of safety with only one entrance, eg, upstairs, where you can cover the means of access ( ie, the staircase) with your firearm (legal in the USA), while waiting for the police to arrive. You are specifically warned against sallying forth to engage your intruder, who could be waiting to ambush you. Pistorius lived in a flat with no stairs, but could have stayed in the bedroom covering the entrance to the bathroom with his pistol until help arrived. If he had been as frightened as he said he was, that would have been the sensible thing to do.
Instead, assuming he is telling the truth, he foolishly proceeds into a dark bathroom where at least one intruder could be waiting, hears a noise which puts him in fear of his life (!!! - dangerous noises?) and shoots into the darkness in a blind panic.
Now, for me, these claims just do not add up. As he was armed, the obvious course of action (if not as sensible as staying in the bedroom) would have been to shout out a warning, or even fire a warning shot above head height. That should have been enough to deter an intruder - even the toughest burglar respects a gun - and would certainly have given Reeva Steenkamp a chance to identify herself. More puzzling - if he was firing wildly into the darkness, how did he manage to hit the toilet door four times? If he saw enough to hit his target, he should have been able to see that he was facing no danger.
Undisciplined, "panic" shooting, such as Pistorius says he did that night, would be understandable from someone with no firearms experience - but Pitorius had extensive firearms experience, which has been well documented and includes, allegedly, shooting through a car roof.
Anyone who learns to shoot is taught to fire only aimed shots to try and roughly hit in the same area. This is called "grouping". Allowing for panic, stress (or anger?), Pistorius' shots were all aimed well enough. They all hit the toilet door with two rounds hitting close together. Had he been firing wildly, bullets would have been found all over the bathroom wall, as well as the toilet door.
Pistorius appears to have fired in what are known as "double taps", i.e. fire two shots in rapid succession - pause to adjust aim - fire two more shots. If so, this shows Pistorius to be a well-trained shootist who knew what he was doing.
I know that a defence lawyer could refute all I have said here as conjecture and wisdom after the event. When all is said and done, there are no witnesses to the shooting and no conclusive proof that Pistorius committed murder. He may well walk free to try and rebuild a shattered life. Even if he is convicted, he will be released one day; the family of Reeva Steenkamp face a life sentence. This is one more tragedy in a country that has already endured far too many tragedies.