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Parsing Pistorius’ affidavit

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WASHINGTON — The trial of Oscar Pistorius won’t begin for months. But from what he has told us, we already know he’s a reckless, dangerous killer.

On Feb. 14, around 3 a.m., Pistorius was in bed at his house with his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. According to his affidavit,

I woke up, went onto the balcony to bring the fan in and closed the sliding doors, the blinds and the curtains. I heard a noise in the bathroom and realised that someone was in the bathroom. I felt a sense of terror rushing over me. There are no burglar bars across the bathroom window and I knew that contractors who worked at my house had left the ladders outside.

Pause right there. Pistorius lives in a hyper-secure gated community that advertises a "solid, electrified security wall," laser sensors and biometric locks. Wealthy South Africans move to such communities precisely so they can go outside without fear. At last week’s bail hearing, a police officer testified that there were two dogs outside the window where Pistorius claimed an intruder might have entered. The prosecutor also asked why, if Pistorius feared burglars, he slept with his balcony doors open. Pistorius’ lawyer, Barry Roux, didn’t address either point.

There’s no record of any burglary-like incident at Pistorius’ home. The two incidents he has acknowledged were false alarms. A year ago, The New York Times reported that according to Pistorius, "a security alarm in the house had gone off the previous night, and he had grabbed his gun and tiptoed downstairs. (It turned out to be nothing.)" Three months ago, Pistorius tweeted: "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!" These episodes gave Pistorius plenty of warning that his hair-trigger reactions were rash.

On the night of Steenkamp’s death, was Pistorius too unconscious to think straight? Not according to the sequence he describes. He didn’t bolt out of deep slumber and stumble off with the gun. He got up, retrieved the fan, and closed the blinds and curtains behind him before he heard the noise. The affidavit continues:

I was too scared to switch a light on. I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed. I noticed that the bathroom window was open. I realized that the intruder/s was/were in the toilet because the toilet door was closed and I did not see anyone in the bathroom. ... As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger. I felt trapped as my bedroom door was locked and I have limited mobility on my stumps. I fired shots at the toilet door and shouted to Reeva to phone the police.

To appreciate the perversity of this story, you have to see the floor plan of Pistorius’ home. His bedroom door wasn’t down the hall, where he’d heard the purported burglar noises. It was in the entryway right next to him. All he had to do was wake Steenkamp and slip out with her. His "limited mobility," which supposedly prevented him from making it 15 feet to the bedroom door, somehow didn’t deter him from manoeuvering 20 feet down the hall toward the danger, and around a corner for another 15 feet to where he thought the intruder was. There, a homeowner ostensibly too terrified to turn on a light in his bedroom, or even unlock his bedroom door and flee, had no trouble firing four shots through the locked toilet door, which offered no escape route. If there really was an armed intruder, this was the course of action most likely to escalate the carnage.

Pistorius’ bedroom is 16 feet wide, with a couch to the side of the bed. If the bed is king-sized, that leaves less than four feet of space on either side. If it’s queen-sized, that leaves four and a half feet at most. Imagine trying to manoeuver around that bed in total darkness, rapidly and on stumps, without bumping into it or waking Steenkamp.

Roux claims that Pistorius, who normally slept on the bed’s right side, switched that night and slept on the left, even though that’s where Steenkamp’s slippers and overnight bag were found. Whatever. If that’s true, it means that Pistorius climbed out of bed, navigated around it to the balcony on Steenkamp’s side, brought in the fan, heard the scary noise, and went back around to his side to get the gun, without bumping into his sweetheart, saying anything to her, or checking to make sure she was there. He didn’t speak to her till he was off on his mission to the bathroom. Hearing no reply from her, he fired through the toilet door anyway. Not once, but four times.

Roux argues that everything Pistorius perceived — the initial noises in the bathroom, the closed toilet door, the person inside maintaining a self-protective silence — was consistent with Steenkamp having gotten up to urinate. But that’s the point. You don’t have to be the world’s hottest ladies’ man to discover that women sometimes get up at night to pee, particularly if you climb out of bed and start moving fans and glass doors. If you come back into the bedroom and hear noise from the bathroom, the simplest explanation is that she’s in there. And if you aren’t sure — and you’re scared — the first thing you’d do is whisper to her or reach for the bed to see whether she’s in it.

What you wouldn’t do, having failed to hear her voice from the bedroom, is start shooting through the toilet door. Roux suggests Pistorius didn’t know the door was locked. That means he didn’t try to open it. Yet, for all his jitters, he aimed with impressive accuracy. In a stall that measured 17 square feet, he put one of his four bullets in Steenkamp’s hip, another in her arm, and a third above her ear. Either he guessed correctly that his quarry was sitting on the toilet — which would be odd for a burglar — or he guessed, in the dark, where in the stall his quarry was hiding.

At this point, apparently, Pistorius started to think rationally. Steenkamp still "did not respond" to his shouts, he recalls. Though the bedroom was still pitch black, "When I reached the bed, I realized that Reeva was not in bed. That is when it dawned on me that it could have been Reeva who was in the toilet." Everything Pistorius pretends he couldn’t have done to spare Steenkamp’s life — deduce her trip to the bathroom, notice her silence, reach for her in the dark — was possible now that she lay dying.

The magistrate who granted Pistorius bail calls these anomalies in his story "improbabilities that need to be explored." But they’re improbable only if you assume Pistorius is a normal person. If you assume he’s paranoid, violent and reckless, his version of events begins to make sense.

Pistorius’ father says his son is getting a bum rap. "When you are a sportsman, you act even more on instinct," Henke Pistorius told the Telegraph. "When you wake up in the middle of the night — and crime is so endemic in South Africa — what do you do if somebody is in the house? Do you think it’s one of your family? Of course you don’t." Oscar grew up with guns, his dad explained. The Pistorius family is a hunting family.

Congratulations, Mr. Pistorius. You’ve raised, in Oscar, a fine hunter. An animal, in fact. When care and thought were required, he moved with ruthless haste to defend his territory, even at the risk — and the expense — of a young woman’s life. That’s not the prosecution’s portrait of what he did. It’s his own.


William Saletan covers science, technology and politics for Slate.




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