It’s hard to feel like justice was truly served in the South African courtroom today where Oscar Pistorius had his sentence extended by one year after his original conviction for manslaughter (culpable homicide) was changed to murder. Pistorius, whose original five-year sentence translated in reality into 10 months in prison followed by house arrest in his uncle’s luxury home in Pretoria, certainly won’t spend six years behind bars now: time served and “good behaviour” will be taken into consideration. He could easily be out within a year.
Reading reports into the new sentencing of Pistorius feels a bit like watching the late, great Caroline Aherne as Mrs Merton asking Debbie McGee: “So what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” As the maximum 15-year sentence for murder had 10 years shaved off because Pistorius “felt vulnerable on his stumps” and “immediately took steps to save the deceased’s life” after shooting her four times at close range, I can’t help but wonder what made the judge so lenient on the rich, famous, white, internationally renowned South African celebrity. Perhaps it’s the remorse she saw in his eyes.
Pistorius’s courtroom drama seemed to have very little to do with Reeva Steenkamp, the woman who lost her life when he shot her dead through a toilet door. Instead, Pistorius’s defence team carefully crafted a sob story for a vulnerable man who kept fatal weapons and fired them repeatedly at people in the dark without warning because – well, wouldn’t you if you were in the same position? His lawyer Barry Roux asked him to walk around the courtroom on his stumps, prosthetic legs cast aside, so people could see the real impact of his disability. But when Steenkamp’s father asked for photographs of his daughter’s body to be released to the public, lest we forget the real impact of murder, Roux asked: “Must children look at it? ... What is going to be achieved?” and the defendant’s brother Carl Pistorius, without a hint of irony, called the application “distasteful”.
The trial of Oscar Pistorius fits so snugly into our cultural narrative: promising sports star and/or millionaire violently assaults a woman, seems awfully sorry when he gets pulled up on it, shouldn’t have his ambitions and his ability stifled by the inconvenient truth, gets away with it all as close to scot-free as possible. We’ve seen it on university campuses across the US and the UK, and we’ve seen it on our professional sports fields. Just a month ago, a Stanford University swimmer was finally convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman and sentenced to only six months in prison because a longer impact would have “a severe impact” on him. The victim wrote in her impact statement about the press reaction: “It’s like if you were to read an article where a car was hit, and found dented, in a ditch. But maybe the car enjoyed being hit. Maybe the other car didn’t mean to hit it, just bump it up a little bit. Cars get in accidents all the time, people aren’t always paying attention, can we really say who’s at fault.
“And then, at the bottom of the article, after I learned about the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times. She was found breathing, unresponsive with her underwear six inches away from her bare stomach curled in the foetal position. By the way, he’s really good at swimming.”
In 2014, NFL Ravens player Ray Rice was caught on video knocking his wife unconscious in a casino lift and then dragging her limp body out of it; he faced aggravated assault charges but was allowed by prosecutors to complete a 12-month programme for first offenders instead of taking the case to trial (the programme was intended for crimes that involve no violence and “victimless crimes”). Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti described Rice as “the nicest, hardest-working, greatest guy on the team and in the community” and said people shouldn't have their character questioned if they've only committed one offence, while head coach John Harbaugh referred to the incident as “couples issues that they have to work through”. It was a tale as old as time. In a world like this, what chance did justice for Reeva Steenkamp have?
Pistorius has slinked off to serve his slightly amended six-year sentence in a country where one man recently went down for 77 years for murder and “rhino horn theft”. Meanwhile, we are left with little more than the words of Jacqui Mofokeng from the African National Congress women’s league: “The judgment is an insult to women.” It’s an insult we saw coming a mile off, that increasingly mundane insult to which we have all become accustomed. But we owe Reeva Steenkamp and women everywhere our outrage today, however subdued and demoralised we might feel. Because we know, deep down, that six years for murder isn’t just insulting. It’s dangerous.Reuse content