Oscar Pistorius’ Verdict Ends the Biggest Social Media Event in South African History

Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in court. May 5, 2014 by Ihsaan Haffejee. Demotix.

Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in court. May 5, 2014 by Ihsaan Haffejee. Demotix.

Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-leg amputee runner who shot his girlfriend last year, has been found guilty of culpable homicide (manslaughter). Pistorius claims he thought his girlfriend was an intruder trying to break into the house through the bathroom window. Judge Thokozile Masipa rendered a guilty verdict, but ruled that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pistorius intended to kill his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

In a blog dedicated to constitutional law, Cape Town University's Professor Pierre de Vos said he isn't surprised that the court didn't find Oscar Pistorius guilty of premeditated murder. He explained:

Although Judge Masipa highlighted several “peculiar” aspects of the case (for example, why did Pistorius pump 4, instead of 1, shots through the toilet door?), she found that the evidence produced to try and prove the “premeditated murder” of Reeva Steenkamp was almost exclusively circumstantial.

It would be difficult to convict somebody for murdering his girlfriend merely because the state produced evidence that they had fought on Whatsapp and (contradictory) evidence that neighbours heard them fighting on the night of the killing.

The high-water mark of the state’s case in this regard was the questions raised about how likely it would have been for Pistorius not to notice that Steenkamp was no longer in bed when he grabbed his gun and proceeded to the bathroom. But as the onus falls on the state to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, it is not surprising that the judge found that there was not sufficiently evidence to convict Pistorius of murdering Steenkamp in a premeditated manner.

However, the judge also found that Pistorius could not be convicted of murder for killing who he had claimed he believed was an “intruder” locked in the toilet.

In South African law it is not a valid defence to claim that you did not have the intention to kill X because you had in fact intended to kill Y and had killed X by mistake. Thus if Pistorius had intended to kill an intruder (and not Reeva Steenkamp), he would still be guilty of murder as long as the state had proven beyond reasonable doubt that he had intended to kill the person behind the door whom he might (or might not) have thought to be an intruder.

According to Data Drive Insights, the trial is the biggest social media event in South Africa's history, producing an estimated 3.5 million tweets since Reeva Steenkamp's murder in February 2013.

Most Twitter users seem to be responding to the verdict with anger or shock. Pistorius's conviction on a lesser charge comes on the heels of a 77-year sentence handed down to a rhino poacher in July, and some on Twitter have wondered if Pistorius might have received the maximum prison term, if his victim had been a rhinoceros.

Twitter users have also drawn attention to Judge Masipa's own admission that Pistorius lied on the stand:

Some believe that Pistorius’ wealth and celebrity status unfairly influenced the court's decision:

Bec Murton imagined Reeva's final moments:

Not everyone on Twitter, of course, is against the verdict or the athlete.

This being the Internet, more than a few reactions displayed a sense of humor:

One user joked about Louis Van Gaal, the current manager of football team Manchester United:

Lingerie model Rhian Sugden shared some advice for women:

Despite the conviction, some still consider Pistorius an inspiration:

Writing for the British charity group Womankind Worldwide, Bethan Cansfield said she hopes the verdict, along with the media attention in the United States over American football player Ray Rice being caught on typing punching his now-wife, will lead to a debate about violence against women:

We live in a world where 38% of all women who have been murdered were murdered by their intimate partners; we can only hope that the attention of the Ray Rice case and Pistorius verdict leads to a serious debate on how we end violence against women and girls for good.

In 2009, Cansfield points out, the South African Medical Research Council found that a woman is killed by her intimate partner every 8 hours in South Africa. With so much attention on the Pistorius case, it's now high time for a better public conversation in South Africa and elsewhere about violence against women.


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