|"Blade Runner (Oscar Pistorius)," Will Clayton.|
Sensational headlines abound in the South African murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee sprinter popularly called Blade Runner. Some portray him as a gun-toting hothead, while some center on his attorney’s claims that he screams like a woman. Others highlight an ex-girlfriend’s cheating allegations, and others still recount his telling a security guard that “everything [was] fine” after neighbors heard sounds of shots on the night of the alleged murder.
Beyond the scandalous, though, the Pistorius trial raises an interesting issue in self-defense law.
The prosecution and defense agree that Pistorius shot and killed girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early morning hours of February 14, 2013. Pistorius reportedly fired four shots from outside a bathroom through its door, hitting Steenkamp three times. Prosecutors claim it was premeditated murder that followed arguments between the pair, while Pistorius and his lawyers assert that he mistakenly believed his girlfriend to be an intruder.
The most interesting part of the case—at least from a policy perspective—may be the viability of the home-intruder defense. Even if Pistorius’s version of events were accurate, would his actions be legally justified?
Prosecutors say no, that regardless of the person he thought he was shooting at, Pistorius intended to kill someone; he’s therefore guilty of murder. The theory of defense, on the other hand, suggests that acquittal would be in order if the judge were to believe that Pistorius acted upon a reasonable fear of an apparent invader. (Judges—not juries—decide criminal cases in South Africa, making for another interesting policy discussion.)
In the U.S., the rule is almost universal: People under apparent attack in their homes don’t need to retreat and can use deadly force if they have a reasonable fear of serious injury. Laws may vary somewhat from state to state, but the practical effect of the abiding principle is to give a good amount of leeway to those who shoot at burglars. Yet, it’s not clear whether there’s enough leeway to excuse blindly firing upon an uninvited entrant in another room.
Of course, the Pistorius judge may simply decide that she doesn’t believe the defense’s story. If she determines that the couple had been fighting and that the screams were Steenkamp’s rather than the defendant’s, she might not even address the legal merits of the self-defense claim.