• thelegallybrunette

Her Name is Reeva: 8 years on, reflecting on the trial of Oscar Pistorius

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

2021 has been a year that has presented its own challenges, hurdles, and opportunities to reflect. A shift in mindset is always welcome as we come into the season of Spring, where new possibilities are able to emerge.

As is the case with personal reflection, there is the current of nostalgia that inevitably flows in, and as I reach a pivotal stage of my career, of reaching the qualification stage of becoming a solicitor, I could not help but think back recently to where I came from, to think on the beginning of a crucial stage of my legal study journey, namely the FE-1 entrance examinations.

I have written about the entrance exams in a post detailling my journey to law school and some tips for students sitting the exams which you can read here and here, but presently, this piece is not an examination (!) of the requirements for participating in the Law Society of Ireland's Professional Practice Course.

Instead, it is a personal recalling of a criminal case that grabbed headlines around the world, that accompanied my subject note-reading in the morning, provided pause during my review sessions at night and dominated Sky News for many months.

What also inspired this was the inevitable run-up to Valentine's Day, the date itself being a noteworthy fact often repeated as well as the nature of such an evening being torn apart by tragedy.

While I was no stranger to cases being reported in the news or the law being presented in a fictional television show or movie, the nature of this crime resonated with me as a young woman due to enter the legal profession. It was with mounting fascination that I began to pay attention and lift my head from the books to take a much-deserved break.

So what was this case that held my attention and that of most of the world for so long?

It was in the early hours of Valentine's Day 2013 in the Silver Woods Country estate, a gated community in the east of Pretoria, South Africa, when Oscar Pistorius, the famed Paralympian known as the 'Blade Runner', a pioneer in the athletic field and decorated Olympian, shot and killed his partner, Reeva Steenkamp, a young model and paralegal, whom he had mistaken for a burglar, after discharging his pistol four times through a locked toilet door.

Reeva Steenkamp, a woman with wavy blonde hair and blue eyes, standing beside a tree with green foliage and sunshine in the background.
The victim: 29 year-old Reeva Steenkamp.

Taking place in a jurisdiction far away from Ireland in a country that had experienced apartheid, political corruption, and much-needed social change, the case that was heard in the Pretoria High Court dealt with issues that were graphic, troubling, and life-destroying, with a golden thread of mistaken identity leading to a horrific loss running through the facts.

It was a crime that shocked the sporting world and the entire country of South Africa, prompting mass media interest and steadfast consumption by the public.

Marketed as 'the trial of the century', for the rest of the world the entire judicial process from beginning to end offered a lens of scrutiny on the South African justice system and the societal norms of the country, particularly the rate of violence and fire-arm related assault.

It was a shocking discovery for those not familiar with South Africa, which soon turned out to be a contributing factor to how the events of the night unfolded and its horrific conclusion.

Oscar Pistorius stands with his head bowed, dressed in a dark black suit and blue shirt.  On the left, a crowd of photographers are taking photographs
Oscar Pistorius stands in the dock at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa.. Image: AP/Press Association Images

Even at the routine bail hearing, which was broadcast nationally and televised internationally, a large gaggle of photographers and journalists crowded into the courthouse, vying for the one perfect shot of Pistorius as he stood in the dock and entered his plea of 'not guilty'. The intense interest would only continue for the duration of the trial, with the majority of the population in South Africa looking on and getting an insight into how criminal cases are tried.

For all intents and purposes, it could be argued that this trial was my generation's answer to the infamous O.J. Simpson trial in the United States.

In a similar fashion, the case and its accused gripped the nation, set tongues wagging in the land of celebrity, and at the centre of the crime, the tragic victims, Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman, who were found on the front steps of her home in Bundy Drive, Los Angeles.

There are some striking similarities between both cases at a glance, which I may explore further at another time.

Certainly, the Pistorius trial was at best a topical diversion for a law student who was getting their head down for a set of demanding exams, and while it was taking place in another jurisdiction external to Ireland, the conduct of the trial and its leading lawyers for the defense and prosecution were focal points for me as an aspiring lawyer to observe.

The criminal aspect was also something that was novel, for, during my time as a legal intern in my first legal role working in a solicitor's office, conveyancing, litigation, and probate were the main areas of practice. Criminal law was still sensational fodder for newspaper headlines and drama television shows. The practice would not become familiar or better informed until the educational module in Blackhall law school.

The unfortunate setting and date is a marked note of the tragic story, especially for an annual holiday that is consistently marketed as romantic, thoughtful, and an occasion for extravagance with meals for two, romantic comedies, chocolates, and wine, all meant to celebrate love in all its splendor.

Yet now the holiday has a more somber meaning, with a chequered history of heartbreak and tragedy.

A black and white photograph of Reeva Steenkamp with her name written in cursive script in the lower right corner held by a male family member with a wedding band on his left hand.
Family loss: Reeva's life is remembered and protected by her family.

The loss of Reeva Steenkamp has a particular resonance, as she was a law school graduate, working as a paralegal, who spoke up against domestic violence against women and more than likely had a profitable modelling career ahead of her. Yet it was cut short and those goals were never reached.

Her family grieved her loss in a public manner, given the high profile of the trial and the interest in the life of their daughter, sister, cousin and niece. Her mother, June and father, Barry, were regular attendants at the trial, which was a courageous act given the horrific facts and injuries inflicted on their daughter.

June was advised that she did not have to attend each day as it would be quite a harrowing experience, to which June was quoted as responding, 'I am doing this for Reeva'.

Following on from this reflection, I may do a more in-depth retelling of the main background and facts of the case in a separate post, given the many facets to the trial as it was adjudicated and reported on.

I also recently watched the Amazon Prime documentary, 'Pistorius', that gave an excellent background to the case, the psychology of Pistorius as a double amputee, and the surrounding environment of South Africa, particularly the fear of crime that permeated his upbringing, and his status as a Paralympian, making history as the first person of his capability to race against able-bodied men at the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Oscar Pistorius, wearing his prosthetic blades, is sitting on a rock with his head bowed, wearing an orange sports t-shirt and black shorts.  The words 'Prime Exclusive' border the top of the image and the name 'Pistorius' in bold yellow font borders the bottom of the image.
'Pistorius' on Amazon Prime

It would also be an opportunity to explore the criminal law standards of South Africa, to examine the defense offered by Oscar Pistorius, and how the system of justice is operated in a post-apartheid country.

It is true that there can be no retelling of this trial without reference to Oscar Pistorius's fall from grace, but for me, at the heart of this story is a woman whose life was cut short, who had dreams and a bright future ahead of her.

If you are interested in learning more about this case and would like to see me cover it again in the future, please feel free to get in touch via my Instagram account. I am going to endeavour to be more active on social media this year and get a better promotion mindset for this blog in the coming months.

Finding my voice and remaining committed to sharing this blog is one of my goals and one that I am determined to stick to.

Watch this space as well for another announcement once I have all my plans set in stone.

Thank you very much for reading and stay safe.

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