Oscar Pistorius had everything going for him. The double amputee had become a world renowned figure and an inspiration to many after he competed in the Paralympics, first in Beijing and then in London against able-bodied, world class athletes. Then all of a sudden, just as he seemed to have the world at his feet, and for no apparent reason, Pistorius shot his girlfriend and supermodel Reeva Steenkamp in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day, 2013.
What followed was probably the most high profile murder trial in recent times. Many people, world over, who had grown to idolise him, were left both divided and devastated at what they saw on the news. The double amputee celebrity admitted to shooting his girlfriend through a locked bathroom door, but claimed that he had mistaken her for an intruder. The overwhelming narrative then was that everyone was mortified for Reeva’s family, but at the same time felt sad for Oscar’s predicament. And then the state charged Pistorius with murder.
Everyone seemed to have an opinion surrounding what happened on that fateful night. However, what we can say for certain is that only one man knew the sequence of events that took place in the wee hours of Valentine’s Day.
The story Pistorius told the police and the one he has stuck to ever since was that it was an accident. What unfolded in the courtroom subsequent to the state’s charge has been sensationally captured by journalists Barry Batemen and Many Wiener in Behind the door: The Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp story.
Although neither Bateman nor Wiener claims to have unraveled as to what had happened on that fateful night, what they do offer is meticulous details of the case. In fact no detail is spared and the book begins with a visceral description of the crime scene. One such passage reads, “A open leather wrapped watchcase containing eight high-end timepiece was spattered and four streaks of red, resembling cracks in the glass, show where her hair flicked past, while speckles are visible on the watches themselves….Spatter also landed on the aluminum-and-glass Oakley stand next to the drawers, housing in excess of 40 pairs of sunglasses in varying shades and shapes.”
Besides the immaculate attention to detail, there are aspects to the trial that many close followers may not have caught earlier. One such was the presence of wood splinters, among the clean white stripes, along the sides and back of the blood-filled toilet, where Reeva was shot and killed. This piece of evidence, according to the authors, suggests that the toilet was flushed before Pistorius pulled the trigger, while the water continued to flow as Reeva collapsed into it. Therefore, if she did run into the toilet to hide from an intruder, having heard Pistorius screaming, why would she flush the toilet and alert the ‘alleged’ intruder?
Yet again, the visceral amount of information involved in describing the trial proceedings raises as many questions as it answers. The book, however, does manage to capture the trial proceedings not merely as a “court transcript slapped between two covers”, but quite possibly how it unfolded in real life with all the twists and turns involved. At one moment it seems he was guilty, the next moment innocent. Soon it seems impossible to believe him but there is nothing to counter the narrative presented by Pistorius. All we know for sure is that it ended terribly.
Besides a riveting account of the police investigation and trial, the book also explores the nature of the South African criminal justice system and the nation’s culture of violence. It also touches upon the much maligned ‘flawed heroes’, who are destined to fail and society’s need to create them. As the microscope was tilted towards South Africa’s justice system, with its flaws and shortcomings, it became evident that there never would be a satisfactory answer to what occurred on the night of Valentine’s Day.
In September 2014, Pistorius was sentenced for 5-year jail sentence for culpable homicide, not amounting to murder. However, he could face up to 15 years in prison, depending on whether a five-judge panel changes Pistorius’ conviction to murder, after the prosecution appealed against the earlier judgment. With the depth of detail involved, the book may offer pointers towards which side the panel may choose.