“Chase Your Shadow; the trials of Oscar Pistorius” by John Carlin is a must read. The title is well-chosen. We learn about Oscar, his family, his disability, and his career. His life was indeed filled with trials and they started well before 2013.
Carlin clearly wrote this book with compassion in his heart. Some might think that he was biased towards Pistorius. But that isn’t the case. What Carlin wants the reader to understand first and foremost is South Africa, its struggles, its laws, court rules, and the verdict.
He explains the country’s past, the violence against women (many are killed by their partner and “the phenomenon has a name in South Africa: intimate femicide”), and how Pistorius became a poster child for several groups to send a message to the male part of society: justice will come out of the shadows!
We learn in detail about the deformity that led to the double amputations. We meet Pistorius’ mother and see how she guided her son through life. She was determined that Oscar should lead a normal life. During the trial you see how layer after layer of glamour is washed away from Pistorius as his fears, anxieties, and short-comings are exposed. The man at trial was a shadow of the athlete the world knew.
Just when you fear that the book goes on too long about Pistorius and his pre-trial life the author discusses the prosecution’s strategy. He explains what is and is not allowed as to witnesses and evidence. An index of all the evidence pieces, the called witnesses, the selected witnesses for the book and their residences in relation to the Pistorius apartment would have made it easier for the reader to follow along.
Carlin explains that premeditated murder does not have to mean that Pistorius had a plan all along to kill Reeva. No. The charge of premeditated murder meant that all the prosecution had to do was to show the court that just before Pistorius pulled the trigger he had decided Reeva had to be eliminated. No long-term planning necessary. If acquitted of premeditated murder, there was the option to be found guilty on the lesser charge of culpable homicide.
We learn about the judge who is selected to preside over the Pistorius trial. Carlin also explains how for the first time in South African history, this trial would be broadcasted live.
According to procedure, the prosecution speaks first explaining the charges to the court. The accused then answers the judge whether they understood the charges and how they plead to each count. Then the defense reads their client’s explanation of the plea, a sworn statement. And this is where I perked up. I quote: “I had shortly before spoken to Reeva who was in bed beside me.”
This was the first time that I had heard about any contact between them before the shooting and, as brief as it was, their communication before Pistorius got up get the fans. “Can’t you sleep, my baba? No I can’t.” A very short exchange but one that lead Pistorius to believe that Reeva was indeed in the bed. However, he didn’t consider the possibility that she’d get out of the bed. Finding this detail didn’t change my mind about his negligence though.
The book explains how Officer Hilton Botha, the first on the scene, disrupted the crime scene and that his statement about the bullets’ downward trajectory was not supported by the evidence.
We learn from witnesses about sounds of bullets being fired and series of screams. Some witnesses were convinced that they could attach gender to howling voices or were adamant that the noise came from bullets and not from a cricket bat. Some were made to imitate the howl that they heard.
Reeva’s life is discussed in the book as well but she plays a minor role. Her life before Oscar is touched on, her family’s hardship, and of course, her injuries. They were such that she would not have been able to scream as the judge pointed out when she read the verdict. I was sad to read that her family spoke to the media in exchange for payment.
Judge Masipa’s 72-page verdict is a logical explanation of the case: were the shots an instinctive reaction to a perceived threat fueled by anxiety and fear related to his disability and past, or was it a rational act of self-defense intending to protect himself and Reeva. Either way, there is the matter of proportionality. The defense did try to get consideration for the fact that what may seem criminally proportionate to an able-bodied man might not be perceived as such by a disabled man.
If you want to read in detail about the trial, South African procedure, the legal options available to the prosecution and the defense, about Pistorius testimony in court, and understand the verdict then this book is for you.
Note 1: HarperCollins Publishers sent me a copy of this book without asking for a review in exchange. They only asked that if I post a review I contact their Senior Marketing Manager. I did.
Note 2: On Dec 10, 2014, Judge Thokozile Masipa granted the prosecution an appeal. The case will now go to the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, the country’s judicial capital. It may take a year before the case will be heard. By that time there is a chance that Pistorius is out of prison and under house arrest as per the terms of his five-year sentence.
A panel of Supreme Court Judges will consider whether Judge Masipa erred in not applying the principle of dolus eventualis. This is a category of murder where the perpetrator subjectively foresees the possibility that their act can cause death but they act nonetheless. If the Supreme Court of Appeal decides that Pistorius’ actions fall within that definition, it can upgrade his culpable homicide conviction to murder, which carries a minimum 15-year sentence.
Pistorius is currently serving time as a group B prisoner at Kgosi Mampuru II prison in Pretoria.