The Person Behind the Door

The verdicts in the case of Oscar Pistorius, and the reasoning behind them, seem to me curious. Either Pistorius was guilty of murdering his girlfriend or he was guilty of nothing.

I don’t know whether there is anyone who needs to be told who Pistorius is. His surname makes him sound like a terribly boring Dutch legal theorist of the 17th century, but in fact he is a South African athlete with no legs who, in front of huge crowds, runs very fast on sophisticated blades attached to his stumps. In 2013 he shot his glamorous-model girlfriend dead through the door of a toilet. She had been staying the night with him and he claimed afterward to have mistaken her for an intruder.

For what it is worth, I do not believe for a minute that Pistorius ever thought that the person in the lavatory was an intruder. It was said by witnesses and by the trial judge that it was plausible that he believed the person behind the door was an intruder because that was what he said from the very beginning, from the moment he came into contact with anyone after the killing. But that is absurd: It would take any reasonable murderer but a fraction of a second to think up such a story, so his consistency in this respect goes to prove nothing.

I think it is overwhelmingly more likely that the couple had had a serious quarrel (probably occasioned by his jealousy), that she took refuge in the lavatory, and that he shot her in an Othello-like rage. But what I think is not evidence.

The original trial judge entertained the possibility that Pistorius did not know that it was his girlfriend behind the door. The finding of guilt in criminal cases requires that the accusation be made out beyond reasonable doubt, and the judge clearly thought that her doubt was reasonable. Therefore she acquitted him of murder.

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