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The mesmerizing trial of South Africa’s ‘Blade Runner’

One Tragic Night: The Oscar Pistorius Murder Trial

By Mandy Wiener and Barry Bateman

St. Martin’s Press

568 pages, $26.99

By Gene Warner

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

There are several different Oscar Pistoriuses.

Prior to February 2013, the world knew him as the South African national hero dubbed the “Blade Runner,” the relentless competitor who ran on prosthetic legs to Paralympic and Olympic Games glory, serving as the ultimate role model for anyone trying to overcome physical disabilities.

Then came the early morning hours of Valentine’s Day 2013. Four shots from Pistorius’ high-powered handgun tore through his bathroom-bedroom door, killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, and forever bruising his heroic image.

That’s when the world started seeing the warts on Pistorius’ personality: his terrible anxiety, including a paranoia about becoming a crime victim, even in his upscale, gated community; his obsessiveness and documented recklessness with handguns; and his emotional vulnerability, as revealed by his continual crying and retching during his murder trial. Perhaps worst of all, even after Pistorius won a long legal battle to qualify for the Olympic Games while running on prosthetics, he challenged the larger prosthetics used by another runner who beat him in the Paralympic Games; just a classless move.

In September, the judge in his murder trial – South Africa abolished its jury system in 1969 – acquitted him on two murder charges, while convicting him of culpable homicide. In other words, when Pistorius fired four shots from a high-powered handgun into that tiny bathroom, a reasonable person might have realized someone could have been killed.

Then, in late October, Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison, although he may serve much less than that.

With a very quick turnaround time, the authors have delivered a painstaking, incredibly detailed rehashing of the trial and the murder case against Pistorius. We see the personalities of the opposing attorneys, the strengths and weaknesses of all the witnesses’ testimony and both the hits and misses in the two sides’ trial strategies.

The authors, to their credit, have made this tome as readable as it is comprehensive, sprinkled with tons of anecdotes about the real Oscar Pistorius.

This book will be a must-read for anyone who loves the intricacies of a high-profile murder trial. It also serves as an even-handed look at Pistorius, South Africa’s answer to O.J. Simpson. One was a national hero, the other a popular charmer, but both turned out to be complex characters brought down by plenty of obvious psychological flaws.

“The Valentine’s Day shooting and the deep emotion that accompanied the tragedy shocked the country to its core,” the authors write. “Oscar Pistorius had been South Africa’s ‘good thing,’ a celebration of achievement in the face of adversity, a unifying character proudly paraded on the world stage. For there to have been such a dramatic fall from grace, a collapse of Shakespearean proportions, was simply incomprehensible.”

The authors have crafted a highly objective version of the case. What they haven’t done is take the extra step, to answer whether Pistorius’ murder acquittal makes legal sense. This reader was hoping for a quick last chapter, after the judge’s ruling, shedding some light on the wisdom of the split verdict. But the book ends with the Judgment Day verdict.

So, to better understand the somewhat shocking trial outcome, we have to rely on the authors’ criticism of the prosecution team, from an earlier chapter.

Some South African legal experts concluded that the prosecution had gotten greedy, especially in trying to prove two murder charges, one for premeditated murder.

“Murder in South Africa is not a big deal,” one expert told the authors. “We get convictions for murder every day. They put so much extra stuff in to try and dress it up like the number-one murder in the world, when in fact it isn’t. The personalities are irrelevant.”

Reading this book leads to one obvious inference, some of it implied by the authors. Maybe, just like the O.J. trial, it’s too difficult to find true justice in any “trial of the century.” Attorneys play to the crowd and reach for a sensational outcome; some witnesses are reluctant to wade into the media circus; everyone involved in the case is under too much pressure; and the whole world rushes to quick judgments.

The O.J. case showed that an acquittal on murder charges inside a courtroom doesn’t equate to an acquittal in the court of public opinion.

That may prove to be Pistorius’ downfall – his own lifelong jail sentence – after the real prison doors swing open, no matter how much time he spends in jail.

Gene Warner is a veteran News crime reporter.