Oscar Pistorius in court on June 13, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)
Oscar Pistorius in court on June 13, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)


The Oscar Pistorius trial was strange and heartbreaking for survivors of domestic abuse

This trial stood for so many women hurt or killed by men who claimed to love them, says Sarah Pinborough

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By Sarah Pinborough on

From the moment I woke up on that Valentine’s Day morning of 2013 and blearily checked Twitter to find an outpouring of horror at this tragic accident of mistaken identity, I felt a twist in my gut. It wasn't that I didn't like Pistorius – I didn't know much about him, other than his admirable running achievements – it was just that “I thought she was an intruder” was exactly the kind of thing I thought you might say if you'd shot your girlfriend during a middle-of-the-night argument.

As the days passed and the newspapers released more information, nothing I was reading did anything to expel that niggling doubt of suspicion from my mind, and I knew that once the trial started, I'd have to watch at least some of it. As it turns out, aside from a few days when I was out of the country, I watched every moment. Phrases like dolus directus (direct intent) and dolus eventualis (indirect intent or recklessness) became part of my everyday vernacular. I studied the feeds of journalist @becsplanb and lawyer @daviddadic. I read their updates and reports. I tweeted them my questions and I consider them both Twitter buddies now. We've been on this journey together, in a way, after all. But why was I on the journey with them in the first place? What hold did this have over me?

There was the drama element, of course: the fallen hero, the beautiful victim, a terrible crime committed on a luxury estate in a country divided not only by colour but by cash. There was the charming defence lawyer, Barry Roux, the pit-bull prosecutor Gerrie Nel, the quiet female judge, Thokozile Masipa, who we were all so sure of, and then who shocked us at the last with her (now overturned) verdict of culpable homicide. 

There was also the puzzle of the trial. It's been over a year since I've seen it, but I can still draw the floor plan of the balcony, bedroom, corridor, bathroom, toilet. I can still tell you where those outside fans he brought in were (moments after, according to him, he and Reeva had spoken and just before he got his gun from under the bed without noticing she wasn't there and then went to the bathroom and shot her, thinking she was an intruder). I can still remember looking at that layout and sequence of events and thinking, No. It could not happen the way he says. It just wouldn't happen that way

Like so many other women, sisters I have never met, I know a man can claim to love a person, but still throw her down the stairs or spit at her

But none of that is what has made me follow every minute of this case. It has been something more primal, a need driven by the echo of the me who once lived with a control freak of a man capable of those sudden and furious fits of anger. The kind that lead to being thrown down the stairs and having ribs broken and all manner of other quiet, terrifying unpleasantries. The long-ago Sarah who's seen the kind of white rage that perhaps, in another country with different rules, could have led to four Black Talon bullets being fired through a toilet door. 

Because, like so many other women, sisters I have never met, I know a man can claim to love a person, but still throw her down the stairs or spit at her or shoot her four times through a locked toilet door. I know a woman doesn't take her phone to the bathroom with her in the middle of the night and lock herself there, without good reason. I looked at Pistorius on the stand, a man filled with self-pity, who wouldn't even accept responsibility for accidentally firing a gun under a restaurant table, and thought, You don't fool me. I know you. I see you.

I had to watch this trial from start to finish. For Reeva, for all the women in the world who have ever had a moment's fear of the man they live with, and for me. To make sure that whatever justice was served, was just. Or, at the very least, fair. 

Dolus eventualis is the right verdict given the evidence. Pistorius knew, on some level at least, that firing four Black Talon bullets through a door into a small space would more than likely kill whoever was on the other side. Of course he did. He admitted he didn't fire a warning shot for fear it would ricochet off the bathtub and hit himself, ergo he considered the outcome of his actions. Case closed. Dolus eventualis. That is what can be proved.

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Personally, I think it's more complicated and petty and tragic than that. It's a story told every day behind closed doors across the world. Horrifyingly banal. I think they had an argument and she ran and hid. I think he was filled with rage and wanted to get into that toilet to get to her and she wouldn't open the door. As terrifyingly simple as that. She locked him out. But, of course, that can't be proved. It's hypothetical. No one can know what happened that night apart from Oscar Pistorius and the woman he murdered. But I think we who saw those text messages she'd sent him, and recognised in them that panicked need to appease, can feel the hypothesis solidify.

People have called this trial a media circus. People said that it was gaining too much attention and there were other bigger news stories. But, for me, those people are missing the point.

This is one news story that has represented so many quieter stories. This trial stood for something. It stood for so many women hurt or killed by men who claimed to love them. It stood for the women of Africa who have been beaten and abused and forgotten. It stood for all those times that a man's reputation has mattered more than a woman's life. This trial was, and is, important for all of them. For all of us.

Because we think things change, but they don't. 

There were women wanting selfies with Oscar in court this week. Nice middle-class church-going women who wanted their photo taken with a man convicted of shooting a young woman to death. Think about that.

The internet went for Amber Heard when she said that Johnny Depp had thrown a phone at her head. They said she was lying, she wanted his money. The jury may be out on what really happened, but it astounds me when sensible people would rather believe the man with alleged drink and drug problems than the woman with the bruised face.

Days ago, friends, family and the judge in his sentencing rallied around Brock Turner, the Stanford rapist, saying he shouldn't have to suffer a lifetime for “20 minutes of action”. It was the victim's fault for getting drunk. He was a swimming star. He should get a reprieve.

I know we live in bubbles of likeminded people. Odds are on that those reading this will, for the main part, agree with me. But there will still be those women out there wanting selfies with the woman-killer. Those ready to comfort Brock Turner after his woeful three months in jail. Those ready to leap into bed with Johnny Depp, who'll think a phone in the face is worth it.

And that's why I've watched all of this trial. Not for Oscar Pistorius. Not for the media circus. I watched this trial for a young South African woman murdered in a toilet by her boyfriend who thought he was untouchable. 

Her name was Reeva Steenkamp. And her death should matter.


Update 6/07/16: Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to 6 years in prison for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp

Oscar Pistorius in court on June 13, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)
Tagged in:
domestic violence
violence against women and girls

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