The Oscar Pistorius murder trial is underway. On the first day of trial, Michelle Burger, a neighbour of Pistorius, took the stand and set the stage for the prosecution's case. She testified that she heard Reeva Steenkamp cry for help.
"I was sitting in bed and I heard her screams," Burger testified. "She screamed terribly and she yelled for help. I heard the screams again. It was worse. It was more intense. Just after her screams, I heard four shots. Four gun-shots... You could hear it was blood curdling screams. You can't translate it into words. The anxiousness in her voice, and fear. It leaves you cold. She screamed terribly and she yelled for help."
We know that Pistorius has admitted to killing Steenkamp. The issue being determined at trial is whether he killed her intentionally, or as Pistorius alleges, he killed her by accident. This is his version:
"During the early hours of the morning I brought two fans in from the balcony. I had shortly before spoken to Reeva who was in bed beside me. Unbeknown to me, Reeva must have gone to the toilet in the bathroom at the time I brought in the fans, closed the sliding doors and drew the blinds and the curtains. I heard the bathroom window sliding open, I believed that an intruder or intruders had entered the bathroom through the bathroom window which was not fitted with burglar bars. I approached the bathroom armed with my firearm, so as to defend Reeva and I. At that time I believed Reeva was still in the bed. The discharging of my firearm was precipitated by a noise in the toilet which I, in my fearful state, knowing I was on my stumps, unable to run away or properly defend myself physically believed to be the intruder or intruders coming out of the toilet to attack Reeva and me."
So let's address some of the more important parts of the trial.
Understanding the Charges
The key charge against Pistorius is premeditated murder. Premeditated murder requires an intent to murder plus planning the murder. Based upon what we know, expect the prosecution to have a tough time establishing premeditated murder.
As support for the charge, the prosecution will argue that the act was planned (or premeditated) since he took the time to put on his prosthetic legs before walking to the bathroom and firing four deadly shots. However, that by itself won't likely be enough to establish the requisite planning element. Premeditation is reserved for more robust planning and generally doesn't capture an intent that materialized right before a crime was committed.
For those that like precedents, in the case of State v. Raath, a South African Court ruled that a father forcing his son to remove a firearm from the safe to kill the son's mother was not sufficient to constitute premeditated murder.
However, that doesn't mean Pistorius walks. Not even close.
Even if the prosecution can't make out premeditated murder, it can still get Pistorius on the lesser charge of murder. In order establish murder, they only need to show that he intended to kill Steenkamp (no planning element needed).
Should the prosecution fail on murder, there is another lesser charge that could come into play: culpable homicide. This charge means that Pistorius negligently killed Steenkamp (or that the killing was an accident).
And this is what Pistorius is alleging - he killed Steenkamp by accident. He thought she was an intruder.
Premeditated murder would get Pistorius a compulsory life sentence, while murder would result in a compulsory sentence of 15 years. For culpable homicide, the sentencing is discretionary (varies from fines to prison time), although it's not unusual to see prison time in South Africa of 5-10 years for this type of crime.
No Jury System & Judge Masipa
South Africa does not have a jury system. Juries at times render unexpected or unusual decisions. They can also be swayed by public sentiment and emotion, while also potentially distracted by celebrity and irrelevant facts. A judge, however, is more likely to focus on the facts and make a ruling based upon those facts. The judge is charged with ensuring a just result and on that basis, will carefully review and consider all the facts of a case.
Judge Thokozile Masipa is presiding over the trial. Masipa has a reputation for being tough on cases that involve crimes against women. In May 2013, Masipa ordered serial rapist Shepherd Moyo to serve a jail sentence of 252 year sentence. She hoped the sentence would serve as a "deterrent."
Given her intolerance for violence against women, Judge Masipa is perhaps not the ideal judge for Pistorius.
South Africa, by the way, has the highest reported rate globally of females murdered by shooting in a country not engaged in war. That's another reason this case matters.
The trial has only just begun. More witnesses will testify and further evidence will be presented. So it's tough to know how this will end for Pistorius.
Still, there are a number of improbabilities with Pistorius' version of the events.
How did he not know Steenkamp was not in bed when he walked right by her? Wouldn't Steenkamp have yelled in the bathroom after the first shot was discharged?
As well, witnesses have reported seeing the lights on, contradicting Pistorius' account that it was pitch dark in his room. As well, Steenkamp's wounds suggest she was not sitting on toilet on left hand side of bathroom but rather on right side of bathroom. This suggests she was hiding from Pistorius.
Also key is whether Pistorius and Steenkamp argued that night. The prosecution has already produced witnesses who testified that they heard shouting and screaming. This helps the prosecution's argument that this was a quarrel that tragically escalated to murder.
As well, the couple's mobile phone records could provide helpful insight as to what happened that night. Steenkamp is said to have had her phone with her in the bathroom when she was shot. Was she contacting the authorities or friends for help as an enraged Pistorius charged toward her? It is unusual for someone to take their phone to the bathroom in the middle of the night (unless they feel threatened) and the prosecution will undoubtedly raise that.
There is more. Pistorius told authorities he could not remember the password to his own cell phone. As a result, authorities took the phone to Apple headquarters to have it unlocked. This raises the possibility that Pistorius may have been hiding incriminating messages.
Forensic evidence will also be presented, which can be quite effective in piecing together what really happened that night. For example, each drop of blood in the bathroom can help determine if Steenkamp was sitting, standing or moving at the time she was shot.
Pistorius' rage issues will also come into play.
As for the defence, they will argue that the shooting was a tragic mistake - but a mistake nonetheless. They will also focus on contradictions and inconsistencies in statements made by witnesses to police and their answers in court. In fact they have started challenging witnesses, attacking not only their recollection of events, but also the plausibility of their claims that they could hear the couple argue from their homes.
Pistorius' claims lack believability and veracity. Ultimately, it would not be a surprise to see Pistorius convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in jail, particularly with a Judge like Masipa presiding over the trial. That being said, there is still a lot of track to cover and much evidence to consider. Still, Pistorius is facing an uphill battle.