The latest shocking development in the conversation surrounding domestic violence comes at the hands of a South African judge who found Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius "negligent," but not guilty of murder in the Valentine's Day 2013 shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Today's final verdict of "culpable homicide" is a charge equivalent to manslaughter. He "acted hastily," the judge ruled, but he did not mean to kill Steenkamp when he shot her four times through a closed bathroom door in his Johannesburg home. Sentencing will come later, but though it is likely Pistorius will face some jail time, the key word here is some. "Culpable homicide" in South Africa carries a maximum of 15 years, though it could be far less.
Is anyone shocked? "
Sadly, I can't say I am. This decision reflects a culture-wide challenge to hold accountable abusers and others who perpetrate domestic violence. In finding that there were not "enough facts to support a murder charge," the judge basically put girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at fault for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, the "wrong place" was the other side of Pistorius's bathroom door, through which Pistorius "blindly" fired four shots, believing it was an intruder, and not the woman who very often shared the apartment and who, earlier that night, had retreated into the bathroom during an argument. He used a 9mm pistol that he kept under his bed.
There were holes in his story. There were the neighbors who heard screams. The series of texts between Pistorius and Steenkamp that revealed he often "picked on" her and that she scared him "and how u snap at me," she wrote. (Still, like many women in an abusive relationship, she apologized for her part.) What's more, Pistorius is a double amputee. He claimed to have been woken up by noise coming from the bathroom, which would have meant he was not wearing his prosthetics. Ballistics, however, showed that the shots came from above. He says he took Steenkamp to be an intruder--and yet had ample opportunity to call out to her or, say, check the bed beside him to see if she was there, as he walked the 16 feet from the bed to the bathroom door. Instead, he shot.
Should we be surprised Pistorius was not convicted of the greater crime? Hardly--that seems to be the pattern with domestic abusers, and especially celebrity ones. Look at O.J. Simpson. Ray Rice. As one Guardian writer notes, the Pistorius trial attracted more attention than Mandela's funeral.
Even if Steenkamp's killing was not pre-meditated--even if it was, rather, a serious mistake, double emphasis on the "if"--it is a mistake that reflects a culture of violence, a tendency to resort to attack first, think later. This is a culture that will not change until we begin to hold abusers accountable, even for their "mistakes." And even if they are celebrities. Indeed, the verdict comes as Janay Palmer Rice stands by her husband, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, and talks about "her part" in the elevator punch that has since gotten Ray Rice fired. I wish I could say that was shocking, too, but it's sadly, these days, something closer to the norm.