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Whether he killed her or not, South Africans think Pistorius will go free

Court sets murder trial for the South African Olympic sprinter in March.

South Africa’s former golden boy athlete Oscar Pistorius returned to court this week to be formally charged with murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and was ordered to stand trial at the top criminal court in the capital Pretoria next March.

Mr. Pistorius wept and prayed with his family before the short hearing, which coincided with what would have been Ms. Steenkamp’s 30th  birthday.

Judge Desmond Nair formally charged Pistorius with murdering Steenkamp and added a second charge of possession of 38 unlicensed bullets that were discovered by police at the Pistorius home in Pretoria following the fatal shooting.

The trial in South Africa for murder of a fashion model girlfriend on Valentine’s Day by a national sports hero has been compared to the OJ Simpson trial in Los Angeles in the 1990s for its celebrity and intrigue.

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The new charges and the case developed by both sides provide plenty of contradictions and latitude for discussion about the Olympic medal winner’s guilt or innocence – though in South Africa many believe that Pistorius will eventually walk free, regardless, because of the ineptitude of the country’s police forces and the shortcomings of the justice system.

Prosecutors yesterday presented documents stating that Pistorius “armed himself with a 9mm pistol” moments after Steenkamp, a law graduate and FHM model, locked herself in the toilet adjacent to the couple’s bedroom at 3 a.m. on Feb. 14.

Pistorius fired four shots through the door, the statement added. “The deceased was wounded and died on the scene,” it read. “The cause of death is given in the postmortem report as multiple gunshot wounds.”

Witnesses, it said, heard the tragedy unfold. “Some of the State witnesses heard a woman scream, followed by moments of silence, then heard gunshots and then more screaming,” it added.

Pistorius, known as “the blade runner” since he sprints with prosthetic limbs, has said he did not intend to shoot Steenkamp, his girlfriend of four months, but pulled the trigger believing that she was an intruder in his home.

But prosecutors that previously alleged Pistorius shot his girlfriend after an argument, appeared to suggest that even if the trial judge believes his claim that he acted out of fear of an intruder, he should still be found guilty of murder.

“An error in persona will not affect the intention to kill a human being,” the prosecutor’s statement read.

As with previous hearings in the sensational murder case, hundreds of journalists descended on Pretoria Magistrates Court to relay every detail to those following it both in South Africa and abroad.

Pistorius arrived in court some time before the judge or magistrate and stood in the glare of television camera lights with his head bowed, praying quietly with his brother Carl and sister Aimee. 

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Unable to contain his emotions, he dabbed at his face with a tissue to wipe away tears.  

Asked to confirm that he could arrange his own defense, he replied so quietly that he was asked to speak up, responding in a louder voice: “That’s correct, your honor.”

Monday’s court date was preceded by a series of leaks over the weekend from the police dossier that has been given to the defense team now that detectives have completed their investigation.

Some details seem to back Pistorius’ claims of innocence, while others favor the police assertion that he shot Steenkamp in a tantrum following an argument.

Also revealed were ballistics report details that appeared to back up Pistorius’ claim that he did not put on his prosthetic legs before he shot through the toilet door.

In an earlier court hearing, Pistorius said he had woken in the middle of the night, heard a noise in the bathroom, and immediately grabbed his gun to protect himself and Steenkamp, who was staying the night. 

“I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable,” he said in an affidavit. “I believed that when the intruder or intruders came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger.“

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel contended that Pistorius took the time to strap on his prostheses, indicating the shooting had been a “clear case of premeditated murder.”

A report in the Sunday Times said the police ballistics evidence now supports Pistorius’ claim.

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The paper quoted “a person with inside knowledge of the case” as saying: “The defense will try to show that [Pistorius’] actions were reasonable for a person with a disability.”

Another report, in the City Press newspaper, claims that Steenkamp’s postmortem, also in the police dossier, shows that she was crouching behind the bathroom door when she was shot in the head, hip, and arm.

The paper cites Hilton Botha, the former lead police investigator in the case, as saying that detectives believe forensic examination will support their theory that Steenkamp was hiding in the bathroom, not using the toilet.

The latest details are renewing public speculation about how the trial of South Africa’s OJ Simpson will play out.

Pistorius’ supporters are vocal in their backing. Some have formed a support group called The Pistorians to attack those seen to be criticizing him on Twitter. Others from around the globe have left messages on his webpage in which they profess their belief that what happened was a tragic accident and describe him as indispensable as a global icon.

Many in South Africa believe that police ineptitude and failings of the justice system will lead to Pistorius eventually walking free regardless of his guilt or innocence.

In recent months, a number of high-profile prosecutions have collapsed or been lost because of mishandling evidence or other problems during police investigations.

In one case, one of two persons arrested for the gruesome gang rape and vicious murder of teenager Anene Booysen escaped trial because the prosecution could not find enough evidence against the alleged murderer despite the fact that the victim named him from her deathbed.

In another, seven police officers captured on film beating and shooting a protester, Andries Tatane, who later died, were acquitted by a court on the grounds that they could not be identified with complete certainty because they were wearing helmets.  

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Ruth Hopkins, a senior researcher for a justice watchdog nongovernmental organization known as the Wits Justice Project, said that public trust in the South African police had sunk as the force had become more militarized and aggressive in a bid to deal with South Africa’s terrifyingly high crime rates.

“From the moment of arrest, the process is flawed, police work is often very shoddy and when they do get to court people tend to be reliant on legal aid lawyers,” she said.  

“From the top to bottom there’s an attitude of being in a war situation but then not distinguishing real criminals from ordinary citizens,” she says.

In addition, as with some of the criticism in the OJ Simpson trial about buying acquittal with high-priced law firms, Pistorius’ ability to get top notch lawyers that can pick holes in the police’s case, says Ms. Hopkings, plays into a belief that the accused will be acquitted.

A preview of how the Pistorius trial might go was provided at a lengthy bail hearing, when the defendant’s lawyer, Barry Roux, tore the initial police evidence offered by its lead detective to shreds. That officer, Hilton Botha, was later removed from the case.  

Speaking to a small group of journalists after the latest court hearing, the spokesman for the nation’s organization of prosecutors, Medupe Simasiku, insisted the Pistorius trial would be different.

“The police did a very sterling job, within these few months having a full case ready for court,” he said.

Pistorius’ trial is set to run between March 3 and March 20. Prosecutors have identified 107 witnesses, including several ex-girlfriends of Pistorius, his brother, sister, and uncle, an ex-boyfriend of Steenkamp, and mutual friends of the couple.

In a short statement released after Monday’s hearing, the uncle, Arnold PIstorius, with whom he is living while on bail, said they would spend the next six months readying their case.

“We are thankful that a trial date has been set and that we can now start preparing for the court case,” he said.

Meanwhile, Reeva Steenkamp’s friends and family celebrated her birthday at their home in Port Elizabeth by baking a cake. Her friends Kim and Gina Myers attended Pistorius’ court hearing dressed in black and were keen to ensure that her memory was not eclipsed by the blaze of publicity surrounding his impending trial.

“There are those who met, knew, and loved Reeva that will focus their attention on their memories, allowing her life, strength of character, and passion to live on through them,” they said.