Julia Pimentel explores the the brutal violence that overshadows sports
On 11 September 2014, a judge in Pretoria found Oscar Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder, but guilty of culpable homicide – negligently firing his gun and unintentionally killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp (what the UK legal system calls manslaughter). Under South African law, Pistorius could face up to 15 years in prison, but legal experts say that five to 10 years is more likely. Pistorius was also found guilty of firing a gun in a restaurant in 2013, but acquitted of two other similar gun-related charges. The verdict has been the centre of a controversy, as legal experts and the general public disagree with what they see as a lenient verdict, but the prosecution will wait until the sentencing hearing on 13 October to announce whether or not they will appeal.
The Pistorius case has attracted lots of media attention for several reasons. First of all, it is a true fall from grace; Pistorius, born without fibulas in both legs, has had prosthetic legs since he was 11 months old. He has prospered in the face of adversity and become one of South Africa’s most celebrated athletes. However, although the media has sometimes turned the proverbial blind eye, Pistorius has seemingly always had a short fuse. When he just narrowly lost the gold medal to Brazilian Alan Oliveira in the 200m sprint in the 2012 Paralympic games, he was quick to accuse Oliveira of using illegal blades. Despite his outrage publicly caught on camera, the IOC confirmed that Oliveira’s prosthetic blades were, in fact, completely legal. Pistorius was ironically caught in the middle of a illegal blade accusations himself in 2008, when his own blades were deemed illegal and he was prohibited from running in the Beijing Olympics (this decision was eventually overturned, though).
Secondly, in a murder case where the only eyewitness is the alleged killer himself, the facts are often nebulous. Essentially, Pistorius insists that he was convinced an intruder had broken into his Johannesburg home and the athlete and his girlfriend were in danger. As a disabled person, Pistorius says he feels even more vulnerable than the average homeowner. He heard noises in the bathroom, walked over, made threats and, pointing his gun at the locked toilet door, fired four times. He then immediately began to look for his girlfriend and begun to suspect the fatal mistake he had made. He put on his prosthetic legs, broke down the locked toilet door with a cricket bat, identified her body, and called the police.
The prosecution, however, pokes many holes in his story. First of all, why did he not check that Reeva was in bed before he took matters into his own hands with a lethal weapon? He lived in a gated, secure community – he had only to make a quick call to security and the police and the suspected intruder would have been taken care of quickly and efficiently by the authorities. Neighbours report having heard loud shouting from the house throughout different times of the night, suggesting that the couple were arguing. The prosecution accused Pistorius of further tailoring the evidence – he seemed to have forgotten or could not explain certain details, proving that he did have intentions of killing his girlfriend and attempted to cover up the facts.
The judge ruled that the prosecution did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Pistorius planned the murder. The prosecution also did not prove that he fired his gun with the intention to kill. Instead, the judge affirms that he was negligent in firing his gun, but he did not intend to kill, and he was not aware that his girlfriend was in there.
Additionally, the entire case was televised. This decision has been generally regarded positively. Experts have applauded the decision, saying that the transparency is not only ideal for South Africa’s highly criticized justice system but also ideal for such a high profile case. Law students all across the country benefitted from being able to have an exclusive peak into a courtroom of that calibre. However, Pistorius’ defence team argued that the televised trials placed unnecessary emotional stress on the athlete. Moreover, most of the witnesses admitted they followed the trial by watching it on television, and therefore the judge expressed concern that some witnesses ‘failed to separate what they knew personally from what they had heard from other people or what they’d gathered from the media’.
The Pistorius case also received considerable attention for what it represented: the judge, a black woman, had power over a white, wealthy celebrity from a rich family. Most of the witnesses and legal teams were white. Apartheid was abolished only 20 years ago, and the bitter aftertaste of the systematic and legal racist regime is still palpable.
Unfortunately, Pistorius’ case is reminiscent of other similar crimes. On 8 September 2014, American football player, Ray Rice, was suspended indefinitely from the NFL after a surveillance video surfaced of him punching his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer unconscious in an elevator in February of this year. The case is extremely controversial because many believe that the athlete was only reprimanded because of the pressure from the media. The issue appeared resolved back in May, when Rice apologised for the February incident (he was arrested but released the next day on simple assault charges). As a result, he was suspended for two games in July. This was widely considered a lenient punishment. However, when the tabloid TMZ released the surveillance video of the incident in September, he was dropped from his team and the NFL imposed the longer suspension. However, a report has been released that indicates that the NFL and the police knew of and had watched the video months before. On 15 September, Rice announced that he would appeal his suspension.
Perhaps the most famous of violent sports trials is the 1994-1995 O.J Simpson case. O.J. Simpson, a famous American football running back, was accused of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. The evidence at the scene of the crime pointed to Simpson, but he was eventually acquitted of all criminal charges. While they had been married, Simpson pleaded guilty to one count of domestic violence. The court of public opinion has historically marked Simpson as a guilty man, but the jury simply believed the prosecution did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Simpson was guilty. The case, like Pistorius’ and Rice’s, has always been tinged with the legacy of domestic violence abuse.
Denise Brown, the sister of the deceased Nicole Brown, wrote an article for TIME magazine titled: “Pistorius is another O.J”. The cases are similar: illustrious sports stars with slightly violent pasts caught up in brutally violent murder accusations. Whether Pistorius, Rice, or Simpson deserved tougher sentences is up for debate, but the law has been made clear. It seems that instead a bigger question can be asked in an attempt to spark a more productive debate: are sports stars (and, by extension, celebrities) looked at differently in the eye of the law?
Featured Image credit: Will Clayton via Wikipedia