Pistorius case incites media frenzy, proves pervasive fixation on celebrity criminals

Among the most discussed and publicized cases of 2014, the trial of Oscar Pistorius has perhaps caused the most worldwide consternation. Pistorius was arrested and charged with killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Feb. 14, 2013. This case raises many pertinent points of discussion, not least of which is the media treatment of accomplished athletes-turned-criminals.

South African-born Pistorius had both of his legs amputated below the knees as a young child and has won popularity and acclaim through widespread success as a sprinter. He has competed in events for both below-knee amputees and able-bodied athletes. Despite his disability, the runner has become a highly successful elite athlete, often cited as an inspirational success story and acknowledged in TIME magazine’s “TIME 100 List of Influential People.” He has also garnered accolades such as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

The killing in early 2013 was ultimately ruled a culpable homicide equivalent to manslaughter, after Pistorius fired multiple shots into Steenkamp through a bathroom door, claiming he believed her to be an intruder. This was not the first firearm charge filed against the South African track star, who had previously been found not guilty of charges related to public firearm use and possession of ammunition. Among these charges, Pistorius has been reported to have an explosive temperament. As told to The Telegraph by ex-girlfriend Sam Taylor, he is an “accident waiting to happen” and “… as soon as he got agitated it showed in his presence, everything got very dim almost.”

The evolution of Pistorius’ public persona in light of recent events is perfectly encapsulated by the sentiment pasted on a TIME magazine cover photo of the athlete, simply stating, “Man, Superman, Gunman.” Ever-changing as they are, the public personae of celebrities of this caliber especially athletes are instrumental in shaping the outcome of criminal cases.

There are a multitude of examples when referencing athletes facing criminal charges – among the most often cited in light of this case is the trial of O.J. Simpson. While it is far from the point of this discussion to reference Simpson’s guilt or innocence in relation to the homicide charges, the parallel is clear in terms of the media reaction and that of the populace at large.

As the dust settled with the trial of O.J. Simpson, much of the popular discussion related to the athlete wasn’t merely about the ruling or Simpson’s culpability, but about Simpson himself and how certain aspects of his behavior could be reconciled or justified.

Currently, as the iron is still hot with Pistorius, much of the popular discussion is related to the factors that contributed to his actions. Many people cite his upbringing, referencing his father’s purported regret at raising him the way he did. Another oft-referenced justification of the killing is his disability, with some arguing that Pistorius, not wearing his prosthetics, felt particularly afraid and vulnerable when facing an intruder.

While it is difficult to know Pistorius’ intention at the time of the killing, the sympathetic attempts to reconcile his actions by many of the sprinter’s fans contradicts the nature of the justice system. In reaction to the trial’s verdict, Steenkamp’s mother stated, “You want the truth and it’s going in the wrong direction, that’s how you feel.” This echoes the sentiment that her daughter’s death is being overshadowed by an analysis of Pistorius’ motives.

When the personae and reputations of those on trial are treated with more importance than the impartial justice that is meant to be given, we need to reevaluate our priorities.

Conlan Campbell ’18 campbe1@stolaf.edu is from Burnsville, Minn. His major is undeclared.