No one contests that just over a year ago South African Olympic track star Oscar Pistorius fired four shots at a bathroom door and killed his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp. The only question left is whether or not Pistorius meant to do it.
Today, Pistorius is testifying on his own behalf. It's grim stuff. His trial was doomed to be a slog from the beginning. Pistorius says that it was an accident, and is not straying from that story. And because Pistorius is the only one who knows what he was thinking that night (at least the only one left alive) the rest is all picking through physical evidence and emotional testimony.
The question of his intention is a black hole, but that's why everyone is thinking about it. The prosecutors will try to fit the bits and scraps they have—the text messages she sent about his temper, the gun he fired in a crowded restaurant, the particular location of the weapon in a dark bedroom—into something the judge will call premeditated intent. If they're successful, he will go to jail. If they're not, he could end up convicted of the lesser charge of culpable homicide, or in the extreme circumstance, go free.*
Either way, people will still keep their own counsel about what he was thinking.
They'll have much flotsam from the coverage left to feed on. Not just Nancy Grace and Andrea Peyser, but also serious New York Times and New Yorker pieces, sometimes complete with video. And if you like video: As it turns out that there is an entire television channel in South Africa dedicated to the case right now. It's located at channel 199 on the dial. It costs around $65 a month.
You can see how, for a certain kind of rubbernecker, it's worth it. Pistorius' displays of grief, even if we discount the amplified drama of the reporting, have the sound of opera. He cries frequently and when he does his siblings rush up to comfort him. He keeps a green bucket beside him because occasionally graphic testimony will cause him to retch. In the middle of his own testimony he frequently becomes so overcome he cannot continue.
The sincerity of this behavior, which is the chief subject of the shriller end of the press, seems almost beyond the point. Violent abusers sometimes, even often, engage in strong displays of remorse afterwards ("I didn't mean it"). His emotions neither prove nor disprove the case. But he must believe, as his lawyers clearly believe, that it benefits him to seem so raw and exposed.
He has good help in that regard. Trial lawyers are theatre directors of a sort, and Pistorius' is particularly skilled as they go. He has made Pistorius read aloud all the messages he and Steenkamp had sent each other on WhatsApp. He has also made Pistorius dress up in the same sort of clothing he had been wearing the night of the killing. He gets Pistorius down on the floor without his prosthetic legs just to show the vulnerability of it.
The prosecutor equally plays for the stands. He laces nearly every question with a reminder to Pistorius that no matter what, Steenkamp is dead, and she's dead because Pistorius shot her, as though someone had possibly forgotten this. The prosecutor is not wrong to mention it. He's doing what everyone else seems to be doing, which is wielding the crime victim like a club.
But still, Pistorius's story does have holes. He describes the relationship as loving. He also told her to stop chewing gum in public and seems to have meant it. Pistorius says he first heard the noises in a room so dark he could not see if Steenkamp was in the bed. But he was able to find his gun in the dark just fine.
If you look harder other idiosyncrasies emerge. I can't, for example, stop thinking about how the South African news blog The Daily Maverick reported, yesterday:
In the end, Pistorius testified through tears, he saved Reeva's Valentine's present - a photo of them both - to open in memory of Reeva on her birthday, August 8th, last year. Just one problem: as I confirmed with Reeva's cousin Kim Martin, Reeva's birthday is on August 19th.
Overall the posturing for the public is somewhat curious. There is only one person whose appraisal of the holes ultimately matters: the judge, a black woman named Thokozile Masipa. (South African courts do not use juries, and haven't done so since 1969, when they were abolished over concerns about racial bias.) Judge Masipa used to be a crime journalist, making her the ideal judge to preside over a case where people seem to be playing for the press. It's hard not to admire her manner in clips from the trial. She's grave without being self-serious, visibly unimpressed with anyone's theatrics. Just today, when a burst of laughter came from the gallery she reportedly said,
For those of you who possibly think this is entertainment, it is not.
She appears to be the only person in this room, and the wider world, totally clear on that point.
* Correction: This item initially suggested that Pistorius would go free in the absence of a finding of premeditation. That was overstating it. We've adjusted the wording to reflect that. Gawker regrets the error.
[Photo via AP.]