Details of the Oscar Pistorius Murder Case the Media Has Chosen to Ignore
We spoke to Sean Richard, producer and writer of a new four-part documentary series about the case, 'Pistorius'.
Screen shots via the 'Pistorius' trailer
It was on the 11th of September, 2014 that Thokozile Masipa began to read out her verdict, a judgement that was live-streamed across the globe. That makes it almost four years to the day since one of the most talked about trials of the century began to reach what might have been its climax.
For five months, Oscar Pistorius had been in the dock, accused of murdering his then-girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. The world watched on as Pistorius – once a respected athlete – was cleared of murder, found guilty instead of the culpable homicide of Steenkamp, aged just 29 at the time of her death. After a series of appeals, in November of 2017 Pistorius was found guilty of murder. He was then sentenced to 13 years and five months behind bars.
At the time, comparisons were made to the trial of OJ Simpson. But unlike in Simpson's case, where he denied playing any part in the brutal killing of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman, there was never any doubt that Pistorius had pulled the trigger on Steenkamp. The question in this instance wasn't who, but why?
It's why a new four-part documentary series released this week – titled Pistorius – feels markedly different to the 2016 five-part miniseries OJ: Made in America. While both slowly unpick murder trials of celebrated sportspeople, the filmmakers behind Pistorius weren't presented with a series of contested facts. Only one question mark hangs over both the case itself and the subsequent documentary: what was going through Oscar Pistorius's mind as he pulled the trigger? The prosecution said it was premeditated murder; the defence argued that Pistorius thought whoever was locked behind a bathroom door was an intruder, Pistorius unknowingly opening fire on his girlfriend because he genuinely feared for his life.
The story of Oscar Pistorius was once that of a modern-day hero. As an 11-month-old boy he had both his legs amputated; by 17 he had won gold at the Athens Paralympic games. But Pistorius will not be remembered for his triumphs; instead, he'll understandably be known as a man who killed his partner. Pistorius attempts to take a detailed look at his life in an effort to understand what actually happened in the early hours of Valentine's Day, 2013. But, as producer and writer Sean Richard explains, this case also tells the story of South Africa, a nation still often characterised by violence and division.
VICE: There has never been any doubt: Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, 2013. Unlike most true-crime murder films, this isn’t a whodunnit, and the trial was live-streamed around the world. Why did you want to make a film about what happened?
Sean Richard: I think it depends what you want from the films. If your purpose is truth, and being honest and true to a story, then there's a lot of emotive and powerful things which aren't clickbait inside, which had yet to be explored. Understanding the person, country and crime adds a lot of richness to the Pistorius story. It allows us to explore the themes which act as a backdrop for what happened: white privilege, violence against women, racial tensions in South Africa, disability, the way the media reported on the case. There's lots of depth there, which didn’t make the headlines.
Pistorius became a symbol – an opportunity for the world to possibly be shown that just because you're white and wealthy, it doesn't mean you get an acquittal in South Africa.
It's also just a really fucking crazy story, right? So tragic, of course, but the media had a field day.
Sure, it's also a spectacular story. You've got a guy born with a disability, his legs were amputated. He went on to compete with able-bodied athletes, and became a global figure at the London 2012 Olympics. Months later he shot his model girlfriend. As we all know, for a lot of media that's a very sellable story. That’s why it became big, although not necessarily why I found it interesting personally.
It's a four part-er, and the first episode is pretty much an hour dedicated to tracking and celebrating the life of Pistorius, a man who ultimately murdered his girlfriend. Why spend so much time exploring the man before the crime?
Honestly? We wouldn't have made that decision if it was a 90-minute piece. We had four hours to work with, so we thought we'd try to tell the story of his life in the most objective way possible. The series is called Pistorius – we wanted to understand what actually happened on that Valentine's Day, so we had to spend time with him before the murder. His disability was used as part of his defence later on in the trial, and therefore we need to understand what that disability meant in his life. His childhood, his mother's role in his life… it all plays an important role later on in the following episodes.
We can judge him on what he committed that day, but we're trying to understand the person in his totality. If you better understand the person, you better understand the crime. I think the first episode is important – in part, celebrating him – because this is what the world was doing before that night. He was a hero, changing perceptions of disabled people and bringing the Paralympic movement into the spotlight. His story is almost like a Greek myth – you don't want him to commit this act, but you know when you see Reeva at the end of the first episode it's going to end soon. In order for people to experience what it was like at the time – to see someone paraded as a hero commit this act – we needed to follow that same narrative, too.
Did making the documentary change your perceptions of what happened? Do you reckon the courts got their final judgements right?
Unlike a lot of people who went into this, I didn't really have a perspective on his intentions at the beginning. Coming out of it, I feel very strongly that anyone who says with any certainty what happened that night is making a leap of faith.
There's a common misconception that the pair had been together a long time, but they had only known each other for three months. There's another narrative – one that says Pistorius had been an abusive partner in the past. There's no evidence on record to say that he had. The police talked of a previous incident of a domestic nature, which was picked up by the press, but it was just an allegation of slamming a door shut and evicting someone from a party. And police officers say this was as it was. There are certainly odd interactions with women, but they don't necessarily lead to a conclusion that this was a premeditated murder.
Come down on one side if you wish, but he’s the only person who was in the house that night. I think people often want to have the answers, but there are a few things missing.
There's a clear motive missing. That’s not to say there can’t have been intention, but nobody has yet found a motive. That information may well be on the phone that was wiped. Pistorius shot her the night before Valentine's Day. The possibility of people receiving messages from people around then is more likely than at other times, and that's what's so key here: a phone was wiped. One of Pistorius's phones was taken from the crime-scene and was later returned. When police checked the phone it said that it had been wiped by a computer under the name Titanium Hulk. Carl Pistorius – Oscar's brother – had a Twitter handle and an email with that name.
We only hear from Pistorius himself through archive material, and of course his witness testimony which was streamed live around the globe. Did you try to speak to him yourselves?
I went to meet him in prison. It was a very brief chat, I was introduced by his uncle. We spoke a bit – basically, he was very focused in trying to explain to me how the crime-scene was very badly handled. He struck me as someone traumatised when we met in February of 2017. Regardless of whether he intentionally killed his girlfriend or not, he seems broken completely.
I think the key thing, regardless of what happened, is that he's a deeply ambiguous person. His grappling with how he presents himself, and his issues with his disability, are very likely the reasons he pulled that trigger. Whether it was the genuine fear that someone had come into his house – even with all the security guards – or a deep and jealous rage, I think it was fundamentally down to this inner-conflict about his disability.
'Pistorius' is available to watch now on Amazon Prime.
- Oscar Pistorius