Not since live television brought us the white Bronco chase and O.J.’s subsequent trial in the mid-1990s have we been as enamored with celebrity and murder as we are with the case of Oscar Pistorius, a.k.a. The Blade Runner.
The double amputee, who gained fame and fortune as a Paralympian who qualified to race on prosthetic limbs against nondisabled runners in the London Olympics, is charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a fellow South African who was a well-known model.
That country’s courts system differs from ours in that the accused can mount his defense in some detail as part of the bail hearing. Pistorius and his legal team did just that and were awarded bail by a magistrate.
Terms of his release were stiff. Set at 1 million rand, the equivalent of just 113,000 U.S. dollars, the amount was still considered rather unprecedented in a South African court. Pistorius had to hand over his passport, surrender all weapons, and remain within the city of Pretoria unless permission is otherwise granted.
But he nonetheless gained a certain amount of freedom in a country where prisons are reportedly filled to the brim with suspects remanded for far lesser crimes. It is a country notorious for violence against women. So there is anger that Pistorius was set free pending trial, although a not-so-level playing field for wealthy suspects with high-priced defense teams is certainly not unique to South Africa.
What has really rubbed some people the wrong way is that, early on, seemingly before Steenkamp’s body was even cold, Pistorius and his representatives also summoned a public-relations team to “crisis manage” his reputation and message.
And, although that message has been respectful to Steenkamp’s memory and the pain her family is experiencing, it also has painted Pistorius as an equal victim in this tragedy. From sobbing through court appearances to suppliant poses in the court dock, ringed by photographers, his actions effectively portray that while one life was taken, another life and career has also been affected.
Pistorius has admitted to firing the shots, four of them through a closed toilet compartment door inside a master bathroom, which killed Steenkamp. He claims he did not realize she had left their bed and thought there was an intruder. After awakening in the wee hours to close a sliding door and curtains, he said he heard a noise in the bathroom and experienced a “sense of terror.” He grabbed a pistol from under the bed and started firing.
Pistorius is/was a national hero, but also a multi-millionaire thanks to endorsements who considered himself a prime target in a complicated country despite living in a walled-off estate inside a gated, guarded community. Because he was not wearing prosthetics at the time, he claimed to feel especially vulnerable. A man who never allowed his disability to define him athletically is pulling that “card” out of the deck now.
The magistrate who granted bail pointed out some flaws in the state’s case — there is a Keystone Kops aspect to some of it — but there are certainly holes in Pistorius’ statement, as well. And the prosecution will do its best to remind everyone there is only one real victim.
We’ll let a judge and jury take it from here, but it will be intriguing. Some are already convinced, in large part because he was granted bail, that Pistorius eventually will be acquitted.
Not that he’d ever truly be set free. Ask O.J.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.