Oscar Pistorius Charges Explained in Plain English


Olympian and former national hero Oscar Pistorius was indicted today in South Africa for charges related to the death of his former girlfriend, law graduate and FHM model, Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius has been charged with premeditated murder, which carries a sentence of 25 years to life in prison. He's also been charges with lesser gun-related offense. There is no death penalty in South Africa.

Pistorius' case will be decided by a professional judge rather than a jury of laypersons, which, in theory, should neutralize any attempts by either side to appeal to emotion or public opinion. This helps the prosecution in that the pending murder charge of one of investigators on the Pistorius case, Hilton Botha, won't be held against them as they try to prove Pistorius' guilt. Even so, the National Prosecuting Authority faces an uphill battle in proving the charges they assert.

The central facts of the case are largely undisputed. Pistorius fired four shots through his bathroom door, three of which hit Steenkamp and killed her. The two sides differ, of course, as to the conditions of shooting. Pistorius' defense is that he thought a burglar was in the bathroom, and that he has received multiple death threats in the past. The state's lawyers claim there was a domestic altercation leading to Steenkamp's death.

The prosecution also maintains that Pistorius put on his prosthetic legs before he fired, while Pistorius' legal team says that he fired while they were off. This point could prove pivotal to either side — Pistorius says without his legs on, he felt "vulnerable" and was frightened of the alleged intruder. The prosecution, in turn, argues that he put them on prior to shooting, adding to the likelihood that he understood the situation, and therefore intended the consequences. 

Without an eye witness, it will be difficult for the prosecution to show this was indeed premeditated. Pistorius and Steenkamp were a relatively new couple, with no obvious domestic problems. Pistorius does not have a documented history of violence. Therefore, the biggest hurdle the prosecution will have to overcome is that of motive, which is essential to showing intent.

Why would Pistorius kill his girlfriend?

The allegations state that they were in an argument, she ran into the bathroom, at which point he pulled his gun and fired through the door. This is speculative. There really is no way to know what happened. Without at least a plausible offering of motive supported by some evidence, this is where the premeditated element of the murder charges falls on its face.

It is likely that Pistorius will agree to a lesser plead down to a lesser offense of "culpable homicide," which is comparable to the criminal charge of negligent manslaughter or negligent homicide in American legal systems. South Africa, like the U.S., encourages the practice of plea bargaining in situations where the probable outcome is unclear, the trial process will be long and it will be expensive for the state. This is an attractive option for both sides: The state can leverage Pistorius into admitting guilt to the lesser offense and a substantial penalty (albeit less than 25 years), while Pistorius can at least be sure he'll be released before his 50th birthday. 

Ultimately, like so many recent cases stateside, this is a case about what the prosecution cannot prove instead of a case about what the accused did. Absent damning forensic evidence or key witnesses stepping forward, expect Pistorius to plead down to a less severe offense.