The rush to judgement on Oscar Pistorius

Picture of Reeva Steenkamp, a white woman in a light pink or peach colour dress holding an envelope in her right hand, and Oscar Pistorius, a white man wearing a black suit and tie.The story of Oscar Pistorius’s shooting of his girlfriend has been going on for a week and a half now, and last Friday, after a four-day bail hearing, he was released on bail of 1m Rand with a list of conditions including not contacting the family of his late girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, or any but one family on the estate he lived on. What amazed me is the number of times the story changed from when it first broke on the 14th, with an enormous amount of speculative material released to and published by the media, and the willingness of some people to jump to conclusions based on this speculation. I must admit to having been caught up in this myself. (More: Bad Cripple ([1], [2], [3]), Funky Mango’s Musings, Writer in a Wheelchair, Constitutionally Speaking.)

As soon as the first doubts aired about the claim that Pistorius shot his girlfriend thinking he was killing an intruder, it automatically became the standard assumption that this was yet another case of a violent man killing his female partner, and the idea spread that the references to Pistorius and his tattered career amounted to an erasure of Steenkamp’s life and her status as a victim of male partner violence — hence the surge of tweets with the hashtag #HerNameWasReevaSteenkamp. Rumours surfaced that neighbours had heard screaming or shouting and that police had been called to domestic incidents at the house, and that such items were found as steroids or testosterone (which, of course, would destroy his athletic reputation, although his defence argues that it was a herbal remedy and not a banned substance) and a bloodied cricket or baseball bat. When the evidence was revealed at the bail hearing, eventually the police were forced to admit that there was no evidence to contradict Pistorius’s account of the incident, hence the granting of bail, much to the annoyance of the people who had assumed he was a violent murderer.

People forgot some important facts about the case and the background. First, there is a considerable level of violent crime in South Africa, and especially that part of it, which is far in excess of what anyone who is used to life in London, let alone any small town in southern England, would be used to. Violent robbery and rape are much more common there than here, so if Pistorius was hasty in shooting at what he imagined to be an intruder, he may have acted to protect her as well as himself. (There is a blog post here about the law which covers this incident.) Second, Pistorius and Steenkamp had been together for only three months, and it is a mystery why he would jeopardise a very wealthy lifestyle, an athletic career which still had years to run (followed by possibly years as a coach or sports journalist) and a reputation and risk ending up in prison, by killing a girlfriend he had been with for only a short time, rather than simply ending the relationship.

I also saw it suggested that disabled people might have been “relieved” at the spectacle of Pistorius, widely held up as a kind of “super crip” role model, being “knocked off his pedestal”. This is quite a grotesque suggestion, because whatever the rights and wrongs of holding up Paralympic athletes as role models for disabled people (especially children), which has been amply discussed elsewhere, this killing was a tragedy in which an innocent woman lost her life. When it appeared to have been a domestic murder, Pistorius’s career immediately came to be seen as an irrelevance and everything anyone had ever disliked about his character came to be re-interpreted in light of what people “knew” about his relationship and the killing of his girlfriend. This might have been the reaction if Pistorius had been discovered to be using performance-enhancing drugs rather than committing a crime, although even then, it might well have just been seen as sad rather than a deserved come-uppance like that of Lance Armstrong, who bullied and threatened journalists who questioned his integrity.

Obviously, he has only been charged, not tried or convicted, and not all the facts have come out, regardless of how much detail was revealed at the recent bail hearing, but anyone who really wants him to be locked up should consider that South African prisons are brutal, overcrowded places, that remand prisoners are held in worse conditions than convicted ones, and that disabled prisoners or detainees are given no special consideration, making it far more dangerous for them than for unimpaired ones, so nobody should be eager to see someone with any impairment imprisoned unless their guilt is established, regardless of whether he considers himself disabled or not (he soon will if he is refused access to his prostheses and expected to walk on his stumps). I think the decision to grant him bail was the correct one, and I suspect that those who are outraged would be rather less so if he had killed a man — let’s say his brother — in similar circumstances.

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