Updated in 2016! I wrote the column below 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, a Glock pistol, 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 is that “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”. They claimed that he fired 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 although she also said that 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 real guilty party because it is a semi-automatic pistol.
Roux initially claimed that the gun fired in one burst, not “two double taps” of two shots, as witnesses had testified.
Pistorius also claimed that he fired “unconsciously”. At no stage did he “think about firing”, he said. The only problem was that he also said that he did “think about not firing” a warning shot into the shower beside the toilet. In case a bullet “ricochet” hit him.
A ‘Manchurian Candidate’?
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, 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 his Glock pistol fired itself under the table, he said. His finger wasn’t even on the trigger, he claimed. That’s despite the Glock’s well-known safety feature. It keeps the gun from discharging “unless the person holding it has his finger fully on a sort of trigger-within-the-trigger and pulls”, says Davidson.
That did raise the question what on earth was he doing waving a gun around under a table during a night out with friends. The weapons effect might well explain the many examples the court heard of Pistorius’s odd behaviour around guns.
Pistorius recounted how he once heard a noise outside his home 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 that the weapons effect was even more devastating because the bullets that his pistol pumped into Reeva were “Black Talon” bullets. Also called “dum-dum” or “expanding” bullets, Black Talons come nattily dressed in “black metal jackets”, hence the name.
In evidence for the prosecution, forensic pathologist Dr Gert Saayman described the dum-dum’s awful effects in imagery that verged on violently poetic – and oxymoronic.
The bullet “folds out like petals of a flower”, Saayman said. Whoever designed these petals wanted “very sharp jagged edges” that could cause “maximum damage” when aimed at a human target.
One bullet made Reeva’s head “explode like a watermelon”, Nel said. Nel used the analogy deliberately to reference the so-called “Zombie-stopper” video of Pistorius. It shows him at a shooting range, firing a shotgun at a watermelon and blasting it to smithereens. Someone sounding very much like Pistorius says of the fruit’s mangled flesh: “It’s a lot softer than brain, but **** it’s like a zombie-stopper”. Pistorius wasn’t prepared to admit that it was him. He testified that he did not recall saying it.
Nel suggested that the video also shows Pistorius firing the same Glock pistol (pictured earlier) he used to kill Reeva a few weeks later.
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 that South African soldiers and police are not 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 that 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 from Rens. It comprised 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 that drivers with guns in cars are more likely to drive aggressively.
However, experts say that 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 wide interpretation, especially in Freudian terms. Yet writers associate practically every weaponry class, from bullet to bomb, with phallic symbolism. For example, consider this comment that retired US Army general Stanley McChrystal made in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2014, 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.
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- Main image credit: Alex.W via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND