How Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp (Guilty)

The trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp resumed today. The prosecution has presented its case. Now is the turn of the defence. Oscar Pistorius is expected to take the stand.

Before the defence presents its case, here I want to reconstruct the prosecution’s case by drawing out the emotions integral to it. Later I will do the same with the defence. See which you find most persuasive.

First, a caution. This is commentary from afar. One has to be there, in the courtroom, in the country, to get a feel for the truth. Nevertheless, this blog aims to educate. Can an understanding of emotions help us understand what happened between them in the early hours of Valentines Day 2013? Conversely, what can this trial teach us about emotions?

Emotions are often thought to be irrational and unpredictable, as if they were beyond conscious understanding. But emotions have their own kind of rationale. They enable some actions and hinder others. ‘Emotion’ and ‘motive’ share the same root. They are causes.

Moreover, emotions exist throughout the body, not just the head. They influence all the senses, not only thought. We don’t just ‘have’ emotions, we are them and they us. Upon sober reflection, they can cause us to act against our own best interests. Upon active engagement, everything they cause us to do makes perfect sense at the time.

Pistorius claims that he and Reeva Steenkamp were in a ‘loving relationship’: ‘We were deeply in love and I could not have been happier. I know she felt the same way’ (Affidavit, 16.4) Why, then, would he kill the person he loved? Oh, for so many reasons. Being ‘in love’ with someone will not prevent us murdering them. Many a woman has been harmed and even killed by a man who professes his love for her. In fact, it’s practically obligatory.

It’s the old question, Do you love your beloved, or do you love the pleasant sensations he or she elicits in you? It’s quite common to believe the first but to practice the second. We like those pleasant sensations and want to keep them for ourselves. The light and airy romantic love has a dark, jealous underside. All it takes is the right (or wrong) circumstances for it to emerge.

In a futile attempt to capture this love for themselves, many men (and some women) attempt to control their partner. As the prosecution pointed out last week, Steenkamp’s phone messages told of his jealousy, possessiveness and proneness to fits of rage. Less than three weeks before he killed her, she told him: “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me. You do everything to throw tantrums. I am certainly very unhappy and sad”. Jealousy is a volatile cocktail of fear of losing her to another and anger towards her for allowing it. It can veer from one to the other and back in an instant.

Perhaps something happened between them that night to trigger one of those violent, jealous tantrums she talked of. Hurtful words exchanged. He responded badly. Afraid, she took refuge in the one room with a lock, the toilet and locked the door. (If she was not afraid, why would she lock the door?) Her two iPhones were discovered there. Perhaps she threatened to call for help. In a rage he battered the door with a cricket bat. There the matter may have rested until sanity prevailed. But he had a gun and guns do only one thing. When she wouldn’t come out, he shot her dead. If he couldn’t have her, no one would.

The violence of the gun shots and her deathly cries punctured his mood. His rational eyes saw what he had done and he was consumed with remorse. Again, this is a common reaction among perpetrators of domestic violence. He wanted her to live.  He really did. It had all been a mistake. But to knowingly shoot the person you love and then implore her to live is the epitome of madness. (Which is what it was.) The only rational explanation for what he had done was that he had mistaken her for an intruder and he adopted this explanation instantly and it became his legal defence.

After all, who knew but him? And there certainly was an intruder that night: his jealousy.

This explanation also became his emotional defence, from the moment he shot her. At the pretrial hearing a year ago, Pistorius simulated the emotional persona of an innocent man, hurt and indignant at being the accused. His body language was that of the penitent, a male Mary Magdalene. ‘See how I suffer.’ He may as well have been nailed to a cross. During this trial his body sobbed, retched and shook in revulsion at evidence of the horror of the crime. ‘Would I respond this way if I were guilty?’

Well, yes, you might.

You might be simulating what you take to be the actions of an innocent man. Simulating is not pretending, nor is it lying. When we simulate some condition or act we produce in ourselves some of its symptoms and characteristics. A lie can be found out; a statement is either true or false. But simulation erodes the very distinction between the ‘true’ and the ‘false’, the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’. And that’s what’s going on here.

But innocent men, I suggest, do not act like Pistorius. They behave with more dignity. What are intended as emotional protestations of innocence, come across as self-pity. This too is evidence.

I doubt that Pistorius himself is really sure what happened that night. The jealous intruder slipped away quietly, as if he’d never been there at all. Perhaps he hadn’t. Emotions can disappear as quickly as they arrive and leave little trace of their presence. It’s a fine line between ‘it was a mistake to shoot her’ and ‘she was shot by mistake.’ And he certainly was afraid— not fearful of an intruder—but afraid of losing her.

It’s not just the emotions he experienced that matter, but the reasons for them.

Finally,  ‘The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing’ (Pascal). Let us note that in this and all trials, reason looks down upon emotion and passes judgement.

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