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The trial of Oscar Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius
Editorial credit: Jaguar PS /

World champion Oscar Pistorius broke barriers as the first Paralympian to compete in the 2012 Olympics. However, a year on from his glorious victory in the world sports competition, Pistorius was charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

According to his statement to police, the athlete awoke in the early hours of Valentine’s Day morning and was asked by Reeva if he could not sleep. Pistorius walked without the help of his prosthetic legs to his balcony to bring a set of fans and heard the bathroom window opening indicating an intruder had broken in. He grabbed a firearm from underneath his bed and allegedly told Steenkemp to call the police. Noticing the open window, hearing movement and in fear of the intruder’s potential attack, ‘before he knew it’ Pistorius had fired four shots through the closed bathroom door.

He wept during his testimony at trial, saying "My ears were ringing, I couldn't hear anything, so I kept on shouting for Reeva to phone the police. I was so scared to retreat because I wasn't sure if there was somebody on the ladder. I wasn't sure there was somebody in the toilet.”

Pistorius In Court

After rushing back to the bedroom, Pistorius realised his girlfriend was not there but in fact in the bathroom he had just fired through.

Maybe she was just scared

Oscar Pistorius when questioned in court

“At that point the first thing I thought was maybe she got down onto the floor like I told her to, maybe she was just scared”

“It was upon that time, my Lady, that it first dawned upon me that it could be Reeva that was in the bathroom or in the toilet. I jumped out of the other side of the bed and I ran my hands along the curtains to see that she wasn't hiding.”

He put on this prosthetics and dashed back to the bathroom and, after failing to kick the door down, returned armed with a cricket bat to bash it down to where Reeva lay dying. He said ““I was screaming and shouting the whole time. I don’t think I have ever screamed or cried like that. I was crying out to the Lord to help me, I was crying out to Reeva, I was screaming.”

Steenkemp was struck three times by the array of bullets fired by the athlete and died at the scene.

Throughout the trial, Pistorius claimed he was defending himself and his girlfriend who he believed to be in bed, but despite the some-what heroic story the Paralympian told on the police, several witnesses seemingly told a different story. The witnesses consisted of a neighbour and two separate couples who lived close to the luxury estate.

The first couple, Michelle Berger and Charl Johnson testified to waking around 3am to the sounds of screams of a woman and a man shouting for help. Johnson rushed to call security but upon his return to their balcony only to hear four shots. Berger suggested there was a gap between the first and second shots, indicating Pistorius had paused and had time to consider – refuting his narrative of ‘before he knew it’. They both alleged the screams stopped once the final three shots were fired.

Another witness, Estelle Van Der Merwe who lived nearby, claims she woke an hour before to the sound of a woman’s voice raised as if it was participating in an argument. She went back to sleep but was later she too was woken by the sound of gun shots.

The second couple, Johan and Annette Stipp woke around a similar timeframe of 3am to ‘blood curdling and petrified’ screams and a man shouting, with the woman’s screams coming to stopped once the final three shots were fired.

The evidence didn’t outwardly support Pistorius’ version of that night either. The markings left on the bathroom door by the cricket bat were consistent of his height without his prosthetics and were of similar height to where the shots were fired. The state’s pathologist examined Reeva’s stomach contents and concluded that she had eaten roughly two hours prior to her death, which contradicted the runner’s story who claimed they both went to bed between 9 - 10pm and in turn, supported the witness statement.

However, Pistorius did not get off scot-free. The judge said he was guilty of culpable homicide (similar to involuntary manslaughter), as he acted too quickly and with excessive force, with four shots most likely resulting in the death of the person behind the door.

Pistorius was also found guilty of reckless endangerment with a firearm in a separate incident in a restaurant, and not guilty in another unconnected incident of discharging his firearm through a sunroof and illegal possession of ammunition.

He was sentenced to 5 years but that wasn’t the end of things for South Africa’s golden boy. Unhappy with the verdict, the prosecution launched an appeal against the verdict and sentence, stating “We hold that regardless of who Mr Pistorius believed to be behind the bathroom door that fateful night, he shot to kill and therefore a murder did occur.”

In December 2015, the Supreme Court overturned the runner’s previous conviction and found Pistorius guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, Judge Masipa controversially, due to his previous time spent and remorse, sentenced him to six years - half the minimum sentence for the crime. However in 2017, Pistorius' sentence was overturned and he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Pistorius is due to be released from prison on parole on 5th January 2024, almost 11 years after he murdered Reeva Steenkamp.