Five Things We Know About the Oscar Pistorius Murder Case

Oscar Pistorius
South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius appears in court on February 19, 2013.


On Thursday, February 14, Olympic sprinter and double amputee Oscar Pistorius was arrested and charged with shooting and killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, at his South Africa home. Since then, the case has made international headlines, with audiences understandably fascinated by the idea that a man once held up as a symbol of courage in the face of adversity could so quickly turn villainous. As with any story of this magnitude, though, rumor and misinformation abound. Here, then, is a short list of what we know about the Oscar Pistorius murder case.

Pistorius shot Steenkamp three times. Steenkamp was killed early in the morning of Thursday, February 14—Valentine’s Day. She was shot in the bathroom, in a small toilet area that was separated from the rest of the bathroom by a lockable door. With a 9 mm pistol, Pistorius fired four shots in total through the locked toilet door, three of which hit Steenkamp.

In a bail hearing Tuesday morning, prosecutor Gerrie Nel suggested that Steenkamp had fled to the toilet after arguing with Pistorius, and that the shooting was Pistorius’s way of resolving that argument. Nel claimed that Pistorius put on his prostheses, rose from bed, and walked about 21 feet toward the bathroom before firing through the door.

Pistorius tells a different story. In an affidavit, Pistorius claims that he and Steenkamp had retired relatively early on the night of February 13. Sometime that night, Pistorius claims, he awoke and went to the balcony to retrieve a fan; while on the balcony, he heard a noise coming from the toilet and assumed that it was a burglar. After shouting for Steenkamp to call the police, he moved on his stumps toward the bathroom and fired through the door. Pistorius claims that he was not wearing his prostheses when he shot, and only donned them afterward, when, realizing that Steenkamp was not in the bed, he rushed to the toilet door and attempted to beat it down with a cricket bat.

Pistorius was charged with premeditated murder. South Africa’s Criminal Procedure Act of 1977 lists planned or premeditated murder as a Schedule 6 offense, just like cop killing, gang rape, or sexual trafficking. The act states that people charged with Schedule 6 crimes will be automatically denied bail, unless the accused convinces the court that “exceptional circumstances exist which in the interests of justice permit his or her release.” On Tuesday morning, prosecutor Gerrie Nel argued that the Steenkamp shooting was indeed premeditated—a murder can be premeditated even if it doesn’t take months of planning, he noted—and that Pistorius should be denied bail. The magistrate, Desmond Nair, ruled that the premeditated murder charge can stand, though the charge may later be downgraded. The hearing will continue on Wednesday.

Nel is a career prosecutor who for years worked with a government agency called the Scorpions, which investigated organized crime and governmental corruption. He handles high-profile cases—murders, political assassinations. In 2010 he successfully prosecuted Jackie Selebi, a former police commissioner who was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Before the case went to trial, Selebi had Nel arrested and charged with corruption, in what was commonly considered an attempt to discredit Nel and weaken the corruption case against Selebi. It didn’t work: the charges were dropped a few days later.

Pistorius has a history of troubles with women. Last year, Pistorius allegedly threatened to break the legs of a man whom he suspected of being involved with his then-girlfriend while Pistorius was in London for the Olympics. “[Pistorius] carries a gun everywhere and I have seen him be controlling to women,” said Mark Batchelor, a friend of the man Pistorius threatened. After they broke up, Pistorius’s ex-girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, told South Africa’s Rapport newspaper that she was “prepared to reveal what (Pistorius) made me go through;” on advice from her lawyers, she later withdrew her statement. In 2009, Pistorius was arrested and charged with common assault after slamming a door on a woman with whom he had fought at a party. (The charges were later dropped, and Pistorius sued the woman and the police.)

It’s not clear, however, whether Pistorius and Steenkamp had problems. Some have speculated that Steenkamp had received text messages from ex-boyfriend Francois Hougaard, a South African rugby player, and that this precipitated an argument between her and Pistorius. These rumors are entirely unconfirmed, and Hougaard has issued a statement denying any involvement in the shooting. Independent correspondent Daniel Howden tweeted that, in Tuesday’s hearing, a friend of Steenkamp’s said that “Steenkamp told her Oscar treated her like gold. Said she would marry him if he asked.” The two had been dating since November 2012.

Pistorius is jumpy. In an article for The Times of London, Fay Schlesinger and Rick Broadbent wrote:

The sprinter has spoken of his excess energy, his determination and his recklessness - the keys to his success, but also the reason he has lived on a knife edge.

He goes to bed as early as 8pm but struggles to sleep. After he got rid of his television and set his phone to turn off automatically he would read books voraciously. He told The New York Times that when a house security alarm went off recently, he grabbed the gun he kept by his bed and crept downstairs. It turned out to be nothing.

In November, he tweeted about mistaking his washing machine for a burglar. (“Nothing like getting home to hear the washing machine on and thinking its an intruder to go into full combat recon mode into the pantry!” he wrote) A few weeks before he shot Steenkamp, he almost shot a friend in a restaurant when a gun he was holding accidentally discharged.

Many South Africans are terrified of burglary. South Africa is a country with a violent history and a police force that is widely considered corrupt. As such, many South Africans take self-protection into their own hands. A GlobalPost article reported that South Africa’s “intruder detection services industry is estimated to be a 60 billion rand ($6.8 billion) market.” Many South Africans supplement this external security by arming themselves. In his affidavit, Pistorius claimed that “I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason I kept my firearm, a 9 mm Parabellum, underneath my bed when I went to bed at night.” He went on to note that the bathroom did not have any bars on its windows, and that contractors had left ladders outside the house.

Pistorius’s house was located in Silver Woods Country Estate, a gated ”security village” that, according to its website, is “enclosed with a solid, electrified security wall with strict access control utilizing the latest security measures throughout the estate.” The house was in the east of Pretoria, one of South Africa’s three capital cities. It is worth approximately 5 million rand, or $560,000. It does not appear that Steenkamp lived with Pistorius.