A New Vanity Fair Story Shows that Oscar Pistorius Is a Jerk. But Is He a Murderer?

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius appears at the Magistrate Court in Pretoria on February 22, 2013.

Photo by ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

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Back in February, before the Tsarnaevs and Ariel Castro came into our lives, it looked like the Oscar Pistorius case was going to be the crime story of the year. You’ll remember the basics: Pistorius, the double-amputee South African sprinter dubbed “Blade Runner” because of his carbon-fiber prostheses, was arrested this February and charged with shooting and killing his girlfriend, model and law student Reeva Steenkamp. Pistorius claimed that he mistook Steenkamp for a burglar, an alibi that was far from ironclad. Some South African cities are rife with property crimes, yes, but Pistorius was also an enthusiastic gun owner with an aggressive streak who had been accused of violence against women. He also shot Steenkamp through the closed bathroom door, which is, at the very least, extraordinarily reckless behavior.

Is Pistorius a murderer? A long new Vanity Fair piece fills in a lot of details about the saga and its major figures, but doesn’t come all that close to answering that question. The story, by the excellent Mark Seal, is not kind to Pistorius. The athlete is depicted as an aggressive narcissist addicted to caffeine pills and energy drinks, a thrill-seeking womanizer who let fame go to his head and used foul language around children while training at the gym. After the London Olympics and all the attendant publicity, Seal reports, his behavior only got worse:

“He was bragging about his adventures in the good life,” a former confidant told me. “He was like, ‘I’m the man, I’m Oscar. The world owes me.’ That sense of entitlement. He wasn’t like that; he was made into that.” His friends, the confidant continued, changed from “the good old lads” to “the Southern Jo’burg tattooed skinhead-gang type. He surrounded himself with people who used violence and rage as an outlet for whatever you feel. God forbid, I didn’t see it going to this point. But I knew something was going to crack.” Even Gianni Merlo, the Italian journalist who helped Pistorius write his autobiography, wondered, “Have we unwittingly cultivated a monster?”

After reading Seal’s piece, I’m convinced that Oscar Pistorius is kind of a jerk. But while the piece definitely nudges the reader toward the conclusion that he murdered Steenkamp, it hasn’t cleared up all reasonable doubt. Lots of athletes and high-achieving people are aggressive jerks. But from where I’m sitting, it’s still possible that the jittery, aggressive Pistorius believed he was shooting at a burglar. Pistorius is a guy who, as I wrote in February, once tweeted about mistaking his noisy washing machine for a burglar. The Times of London reported on Pistorius’ “excess energy,” how he struggled to fall asleep. “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,” the paper reported. Pistorius seems like exactly the sort of person who might shoot first and ask questions later.

One of Seal’s main sources is Hilton Botha, the police detective who offered inconsistent testimony during Pistorius’ bail hearing, and who has since resigned from the force. Botha’s credibility was further damaged when it came out that he was himself facing charges of attempted murder. (Botha explains away those charges near the end of the story—he was merely shooting at the tires of a taxi that had forced his police car off the road, he tells Seal.) Botha’s bid at redemption here comes across as self-serving and unconvincing. It would’ve been nice if Seal had found some other police source to back up Botha’s characterization of the evidence against Pistorius—he argues that the angle of the bullet holes in the bathroom door and the placement of the bullet casings in the bathroom prove that Pistorius shot from close range with his prosthetic legs on—as well as Botha’s characterization of himself as a good cop. If you believe Botha, then there’s no way Pistorius didn’t do it. But I’m not as sure as Seal seems to be that we should trust Botha.

Anyway, you should read the entire piece yourself. It probably won’t change your mind about the case one way or the other, but it’s full of good details and good reporting—the perfect refresher on a story that isn’t going away anytime soon.