Updated! Here’s a column I wrote during Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ trial for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2014. Judge Thokozile Masipa first found him guilty of culpable homicide. The Appeal Court overturned that verdict in 2015 and found him guilty of murder. In 2016, he was back in prison serving a six-year jail sentence for murder.
Pistorius always admitted firing the four shots that ended Reeva’s life behind a locked toilet door in his luxury Pretoria East home. Therefore, this trial was never really a ‘whodunnit’. It was always more of a ‘whydunit’. Here, I reveal a different ‘whodunnit’ altogether:
By Marika Sboros
Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius’s legal team missed a brilliant defence that could have saved him from a murder conviction. They should just have told the judge that their client wasn’t guilty because he didn’t pull the trigger.
The trigger pulled his finger.
There’s even a psychological term for that: the weapons effect. It’s about the mesmerising effect that the mere presence of a gun can have on minds and digits. It is based on research showing that guns “don’t just permit violence, they stimulate it as well”.
It could have supported Pistorius’s contention that he isn’t to blame for pumping four bullets into a locked toilet door. His gun killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the most gruesome fashion on Valentine’s Day 2013. It is the real “smoking gun”.
Dr Leonard Berkowitz, University of Wisconsin emeritus psychology professor, first used the term weapons effect in 1967. That was in a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showing the effects of guns on body and mind. Berkowitz has spent the intervening years contributing to a body of research into the weapons effect.
Among his findings: “The finger pulls the trigger, but the trigger also pulls the finger”.
In the trial, defence advocate Barry Roux and Pistorius seemed to claim a form of “putative self-defence”. He fired genuinely but wrongly as it turned out because he thought Reeva was an intruder lurking behind the toilet door. One legal difficulty here is that putative self-defence weakens with the number of shots exceeding one. Pistorius fired four.
Judge Thokozile Masipa did seem to buy into Pistorius’ intruder defence even as she said he “acted hastily and used excessive force”.
Pistorius said he wasn’t to blame for the four shots. Indeed, at times he said that he couldn’t remember actually firing them. He should just have said that the 9mm pistol he used to shoot at the toilet door is the really guilty party because it’s a semi-automatic. Roux initially claimed that the gun fired in one burst, not “two double taps” – two shots,
Roux initially claimed that the gun fired in one burst, not “two double taps” – two shots, brief pause, two more as witnesses testified.
Pistorius also claimed he fired “unconsciously”. At no stage did he “think about firing”, he said. Only problem was he also said he did “think about not firing” a warning shot into the shower beside the toilet. That was in case a “ricochet” hit him.
But in the end that also didn’t seem to matter much to Matsipa.
Pistorius could have claimed that the weapons effect made him a latter-day “Manchurian Candidate”, therefore that he was the unwitting lead in a “snuff” movie. Certainly, the gun was his constant companion even in bed. It appears to have overcome all rationality, perspective and extensive firearm training that he had.
That would account for the “eerie autonomy” guns seem to have in Pistorius’s hands, writes New Yorker executive editor Amy Davidson. And for the “miracle of immaculate explosion”, as state prosecutor Gerrie Nel sarcastically described an incident involving a Glock pistol.
Pistorius was having dinner with friends when the Glock fired itself under the table, he said. His finger wasn’t even on the trigger, he said. That’s despite a safety feature the Glock has that “keeps it from discharging unless the person holding it has his finger fully on a sort of trigger-within-the-trigger and pulls”, says Davidson.
The weapons effect might well explain the many examples the court heard of Pistorius’s odd behaviour around guns. He once heard a noise and instantly dropped to the floor adopting “code red” or “combat mode” fearing an intruder. It turned out to be the washing machine.
Unlike Reeva, the washing machine emerged unscathed from that encounter.
Pistorius could have claimed the weapons effect was more devastating because his pistol pumped not one but four “Black Talon” bullets into Reeva. Also called “dum-dum” or “expanding” bullets, these come nattily dressed in “black metal jackets”. In evidence for the prosecution, forensic pathologist Dr Gert Saayman described the dum-dum’s awful effects in imagery that verged on violently poetic.
The bullet “folds out like petals of a flower”, Saayman said. Whoever designed these petals meant them to have “very sharp jagged edges” that cause “maximum damage” when aimed at a target of human tissue.
One bullet made Reeva’s head “explode like a watermelon”, Nel said. That was in reference to the “Zombie-stopper” video of Pistorius blasting the fruit to smithereens at a shooting range. It allegedly shows him using the same pistol he used to kill Reeva a few weeks later. Someone sounding like him says of the fruit’s mangled flesh: “It’s a lot softer than brain, but **** it’s like a zombie-stopper”.
One bullet carved into Reeva’s arm “like an instant amputation”, forensic geologist Roger Dixon testified for the defence. That was a rare comment in his evidence that made any sense at all.
One might idly wonder why Pistorius had bullets South African soldiers and police aren’t allowed to have. His gun “required” them, he said. That involuntary anthropomorphism was a signal of the weapons effect if ever I heard one.
Psychologists might say the effect grows stronger with attachment. Witnesses, including Johannesburg firearm trainer Sean Rens, testified to Pistorius’s “great love” and “enthusiasm” for guns. He had ordered an arsenal: three shotguns, two revolvers, a semi-automatic assault rifle, another self-loading rifle and nearly 600 ammunition rounds.
Psychologists and scientists debate whether the weapons effect is real. A 1990 review in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology of 56 studies suggested that the mere sight of weapons could “increase aggression in both angry and non-angry people”. In Accident Analysis and Prevention in 2002, Harvard scientists say drivers with guns in cars are more likely to drive aggressively.
Experts say the symbolism and impact of guns vary depending on “a given individual’s consciousness”. For some, they are a source of safety and security. They fulfil one of the most basic human needs in psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy. For others, guns sublimate sexual needs.
The sexual symbolism of guns is subject to interpretation, especially in Freudian terms. Yet writers associate practically every weaponry class, from bullet to bomb, with phallic symbolism. In Foreign Affairs magazine in 2014, retired US Army general Stanley McChrystal said of his role in directing weapons use in Iraq: “It is sexy, it is satisfying, it is manly.”
A gun can have “dark presence”, writes New Yorker journalist Alec Wilkinson. It can be about “possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation”.
He’s not saying everyone with an “inordinate” passion for guns is unstable. It’s just that a gun can be “the most powerful device there is to accessorise the ego”.
Reeva’s death demonstrates the fatal consequences of that accessory.
- Follow me on Twitter @MarikaSboros
- Like my Facebook Page
- Main image credit: Alex.W via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND