Troubling questions in Pistorius case

AP Photo/Alon Skuy

It wasn't gunshots that initially awoke Oscar Pistorius' next-door neighbors the night Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend of three months, was shot dead in a bathroom in his house in the wee hours of Valentine's Day 2013. At first, it was just the sound of a woman and then a man shouting, followed by a "boom boom boom" noise, Pistorius' neighbor, Dr. Johan Stipp, testified during one of the more gripping moments of the South African track star's murder trial, which began last week in Pretoria.

"I didn't hear any screaming after that," Stipp said.

The timing -- the screams first, then the shots -- is important because Pistorius told police that night that he didn't know where Steenkamp was before he fired into the locked door of the toilet closet, believing there was an intruder inside. She died almost instantly from bullet wounds to the skull, right hip and right arm. Pistorius had to bash the door open with a cricket bat after realizing what he'd done.

Until that night, Pistorius had been seen around the world as an indomitable hero -- a double-amputee sprinter who runs on carbon-fiber blades and had done the seemingly impossible by qualifying to run in the Olympic Summer Games in London, not only the Paralympics, which he had dominated for years.

Since then, Pistorius' case has provoked discussion on everything from how the astronomical everyday crime rates in South Africa might have fed his fears -- according to police statistics, about 45 people are murdered every day and home burglaries are up 70 percent in the past decade -- to the deadly way domestic violence can slink up on victims.

It's been propped up as a cautionary tale about the artifice of celebrity, and the corrosive influence of power and money and fame. Pistorius wasn't just a superhero sports figure. Even more than O.J. Simpson before him, he was a man who was widely known to have significant character flaws that were ignored or forgiven or, at the very least, didn't impinge much on his burgeoning fame -- even lionization -- before he was accused of murdering a woman he'd been with.

But make no mistake: The presence of the gun in this story is every bit as pivotal as the details about the man who pulled the trigger.

Because whether Pistorius is convicted of premeditated murder or the lesser charge of culpable homicide, he will go down as another example of the very old lesson that the presence of a gun tends to accelerate rather than decelerate the chances that someone will die or get hurt.

After that, the question of motive is just some heartbreaking housekeeping that must be done once a trigger is pulled, shots ring out and a heartbeat stops.

Studies such as this one repeatedly have shown that, when a gun is present, the ending is far more likely to unfurl as violently as it did for Steenkamp or Kasandra Perkins, the girlfriend whom Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot dead in 2012 before killing himself, than the way it did for Ariane Felton.

She is the estranged wife of Knicks guard Raymond Felton who had her attorney take Felton's pistol (which was loaded with lethal hollow-point bullets, same as Pistorius' killing weapon was) to a New York City police station late last month after a series of arguments about their pending divorce, which left her afraid to have the weapon in their apartment.

For that, Ariane -- who is pursuing a law degree, something 23-year-old Steenkamp had already accomplished by her death -- was accused in some quarters of trying to shake down her rich husband for a better settlement rather than shrewdly moving to protect herself.

Pistorius' state of mind when he reached for his gun will be pivotal in his case. His defense team wants to portray him as a gallant man who was already deeply in love with Steenkamp and is guilty of nothing more than killing her in an unutterably sad case of mistaken identity. Pistorius said he'd heard a noise and thought he was defending the two of them from an intruder as he grabbed a 9 mm revolver from under his bed, walked toward the adjoining bathroom on his stumps, because he hadn't had time to put on his prosthetic legs, and then began shooting at the bathroom door in the pitch-black darkness.

But details the prosecution has presented in court have raised troubling questions about the statement and timeline Pistorius gave police the night of the shooting.

The prosecution also has taken pains to create a portrait of Pistorius the man, teasing out testimony that described Pistorius in terms that had already begun to emerge in media profiles of him such as this New York Times magazine story written before the London Games.

Two of Pistorius' male friends as well as a former girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, have all described in court how Pistorius was known to be extremely reckless, impetuous, given to fits of shouting and anger. He was also very fond of guns. He liked to own them. He liked to carry them. And he liked to shoot them.

One of the friends, Darren Fresco, testified that, on one occasion, Pistorius abruptly fired his pistol through the sunroof of his car that Fresco was driving and Taylor also was riding in. Why? Because a policeman had stopped the car, noticed Pistorius' pistol on the backseat and emptied the bullets from its chambers as Pistorius excoriated the cop, saying, "You can't just touch another man's gun."

After the cop had left, and Pistorius fired a shot into the air, Fresco said he shouted at Pistorius, "Are you f---ing mad?"

Fresco also testified that, in another incident, he happily took the blame for Pistorius, at Pistorius' request, when a pistol discharged in the sprinter's hands in a crowded Johannesburg restaurant.

If there's been one grace note to the Pistorius trial so far, it's that the early-day grisliness and sight of Pistorius occasionally coming undone has made it impossible to feel desensitized about what happened, sparing us some of the lowlights of how the Simpson trial was treated two decades ago.

The two cases have been compared because the Pistorius proceedings have been called South Africa's "Trial of the Century" and televised live, same as Simpson's trial after the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman was in the U.S. But, during the unblinking media coverage of the Simpson saga, it often seemed as though the case had become almost sanitized -- real-life murder reduced to a surreal TV show, or a whodunit that kept everyone turning the page for more. At the time, a writer for Esquire actually termed the case another point on the continuum of "Murder as Art," a phrase that still feels like an obscenity.

We have progressed from that, at least. Because there has been no prettifying the Pistorius trial. The photos of Pistorius sitting in the defendant's courtroom dock alone, sobbing, covering his ears at times and retching repeatedly into a green sick bucket near his feet as the state's pathologist detailed last week how three hollow-point bullets tore through Steenkamp's skin, killing her instantly, have been used and reused worldwide. Pistorius clutched his head and vomited again Thursday when graphic photos of where Steenkamp was shot were shown in court.

One of the things the Simpson case forced us to do was suspend disbelief and ask, "Can someone be pleasant company and a murderer both?" And the chilling answer has always been yes, of course, even if Simpson was acquitted.

What the Pistorius case forces us to ponder is haunting in a different way.

The prosecution has established that Pistorius' rage and wantonness were well-known. After Steenkamp was killed, Taylor's mother actually told reporters: "I am so glad that Sammy is safe and sound and out of the clutches of that man. There were a few occasions where things could have gone wrong with her and his gun during the time they dated."

And yet, it seems, few folks proactively tried to protect others from Pistorius. Or Pistorius from himself. But why? Why didn't folks look at the Blade Runner and all his flaws and decide they should run the other way -- but not before telling him he needed help or, at the very least, a different apprehension of the responsibility of owning a gun? Why didn't anyone point out that only dumb luck saved him and anyone near him from being in gun-related trouble before? Or that having a handgun doesn't enhance one's safety; it can give fatal expression to someone's flaws or impetuosity or anger?

Raymond Felton's wife understood that dynamic. And she's still alive today.

It's too late for Pistorius to get that. But the rest of us still can.