In Pretoria, South Africa, the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius has started. If you recall, he has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Because of his extraordinary work as a disabled Olympic athlete and her work as a model, the case has attracted world attention.
The facts presented by the media are straight forward. Mr. Pistorius and Ms. Steenkamp were at home in the evening. Mr. Pistorius left to get two fans while Ms. Steenkamp went to the bathroom. Mr. Pistorius didn’t realize she’d done so. He came back into the bedroom and heard a suspicious noise in the bathroom. He pulled-out a gun in order to protect both of them from the possible intruder, and he shouted at the bathroom door. No one responded, but Mr. Pistorius still heard noises so he fired the gun through the door four times— killing Ms. Steenkamp who was still in the bathroom.
Mr. Pistorius claims self defense. Did he act in self defense and should he be acquitted of murder? Here are some issues to consider:
1. What does self defense actually mean? Can you defend yourself unlimited no matter what the situation? One of the goofy things about law is that it is different in every jurisdiction. Federal law is different from Minnesota law is different from New Jersey law is different from the law in South Africa. That means, I can’t say for sure what the definition of self defense is in South Africa. However, most laws are very similar to one another.
Let’s look at the Minnesota definition: A person can defend themselves with deadly force if they reasonably believe they or another person are exposed to great bodily harm or death, or preventing the commission of a felony in the person’s home.
2. We can see that self defense, even killing someone, is justifiable. What about Mr. Pistorius? He says that he believed that there was an intruder and that he feared for the safety of both he and Ms. Steenkamp, particularly because Mr. Pistorius is missing both of his legs.
3. We can also see that if a person is in their home, they are entitled to even greater justification for killing someone. The first half of the law only allows killing if you believe great bodily harm or death to yourself or another is imminent. In the home situation, the standard is only you think a felony will be committed. A felony could be stealing something expensive from you. That would justify killing someone in your home.
4. Under this analysis, Mr. Pistorius looks like he may win. However, the prosecution produced a neighbor as a witness—Michelle Burger who says she heard Ms. Steenkamp scream several times before Mr. Pistorius fired. If this is true, he certainly can’t claim he continued to think the person in the bathroom was an intruder.
What do you think will be the outcome?