Oscar Pistorius Saga: Murder or Mistake?

Posted By Rogan Law || 26-Feb-2013

CNN reports that prosecutors in South Africa are seeking to charge Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius with premeditated murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day. Pistorius stated that he fired shots into the bathroom believing that there was an intruder inside and adamantly denies any allegation that he intended to shoot Reeva.

Although the shocking and tragic case will never see the American judicial system, I will analyze the legal implications of the shooting death of model Reeva Steenkamp and the possibility of Oscar Pistorius being convicted of murder if the shooting had occurred in the United States.

Under American law, homicide is the death of a human being caused by another human being. However, not all homicides are deemed murder. Homicide is usually separated into two fields; murder and manslaughter. Manslaughter is normally separated depending upon the intent of the person who kills the victim. First, the intentional killing of another person in "the heat of passion" or from an "unreasonable use of force" in self-defense is often classified as voluntary manslaughter and carries less of a punishment than murder. Second, an unintentional killing, often through negligence, of another person usually falls under the realm of involuntary manslaughter. Manslaughter lacks the element of "malice" and therefore has traditionally been viewed as less worthy of harsh punishment.

Different classifications for murder arise depending on the state, but there is a general trend toward having different degrees of murder. First degree murder usually involves one of four categories of killing. The first and most severely punished is the charge of premeditated murder. This involves the knowing, intentional killing of another person with "malice aforethought." Premeditation has no set time-frame, but is usually determined through evidence of the actors state of mind immediately preceding the death of the victim. Many states still push for the death penalty in premeditated murder convictions.

Another category is called "depraved heart" murder. This involves the reckless disregard for human life in ones actions which result in the death of person. A typical example is driving fast on a crowded sidewalk or firing a gun into a crowd of people with no specific victim in mind.

The third type of murder charge can stem from a person intending to cause "serious bodily injury" to another person which results in the death of the victim. Hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat a few times could lead to murder charges if the victim dies. What is considered serious bodily injury varies between states and jurisdictions.

The fourth and final category of murder is known as "felony murder." Felony murder is created by statute/law and punishes persons involved in dangerous felonies (robbery, arson etc.) for the natural and foreseeable deaths related to the commission of the dangerous felony. The robber may never intend to hurt anyone, but could still be prosecuted if a person dies in the course of the robbery.

In the Pistorius case, a factual determination will be made as to what actually occurred in the Pretoria home that fatal Valentine's Day. The judge/jury will determine if Pistorius acted with premeditation and malice; which would lead to murder charges, or the judge/jury could conclude that the "heat of passion" during a fight between the two lovers created "rage" in which case a voluntary manslaughter charge would be more appropriate.

Pistorius will also raise defenses to killing his girlfriend. If the factual evidence would lead a normal person in similar circumstances to have a reasonable fear that an intruder was in the bathroom, then a not guilty verdict could occur. However, if a reasonable person would not fire shots into a small bathroom without warning or inquiry, then Pistorius should be convicted of either murder or manslaughter.

In sum, applying the laws of South Africa, the cause of this tragic accident will be determined through a fact specific inquiry into the state of mind of Pistorius by looking any and all evidence the judge allows into the trial. Determining exactly what led to firing the weapon into the bathroom and the death of a beautiful and talented woman remains to be seen.