What we know and don't know about the night Oscar Pistorius killed his girlfriend


Paralympic and Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius of South Africa races against a pure-bred Arabian horse during the Gathering of all Leaders In Sport (GOALS) forum on December 12, 2012.


Karim Jaafar

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A year ago Friday, South Africans awoke to reports that Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic sprinter and a national sports icon, had shot and killed his girlfriend.

It was Valentine’s Day. Pistorius had been dating Reeva Steenkamp, a law graduate turned model, for four months. A week earlier, the stylish, smiling couple had been photographed together at a sports awards dinner.

As news of Steenkamp’s death and Pistorius’s arrest spread around the world, South Africa was in shock. How could such a tragedy have happened?

One year later, there may be answers at last, with the Pistorius trial set to begin next month.

Here’s a brief recap of what we know, what we don’t know, and what will likely happen next.

What we know

Pistorius shot and killed Steenkamp just after 3 a.m. on February 14, 2013, at his home in the Silver Woods Country Estate, an exclusive gated community in Pretoria.

Four shots were fired through the locked door of the toilet cubicle in a bathroom adjoining the master bedroom, and three hit Steenkamp. The cause of death was multiple gunshot wounds.

Normally you would see a lot of “allegedlys” in paragraphs like this about an ongoing investigation or trial. But Pistorius has not denied killing Steenkamp. Rather, he says that he did kill Steenkamp, but that it was an accident.

On August 19, 2013 — the day that would have been her 30th birthday — he was indicted on charges of premeditated murder, which is akin to first-degree murder.

What we don’t know

Did Pistorius intend to shoot Steenkamp or did he mistake her for an intruder?

Pistorius’s legal team says that he heard a noise in the early hours of the morning, took a 9mm pistol from under his bed, and without putting on his prosthetic legs, made his way to the bathroom in darkness.

He thought Steenkamp was still in bed, and believed an intruder was hiding in the toilet cubicle. He fired four shots through the door.

When Pistorius realized Steenkamp was not in the bedroom, he put on his prosthetics and bashed down the toilet door with a cricket bat. There he found Steenkamp still conscious. He carried her downstairs and she died in his arms.

Prosecutors dispute this account, and accuse Pistorius of premeditated murder. Neighbors, some of whom may be called as witnesses, are reported to have heard the couple having a loud argument late that night.

The shots through the toilet door were angled downwards, prosecutors are expected to claim, suggesting Pistorius was already wearing his prosthetic legs. This would challenge Pistorius’s claim made during his bail hearing that he felt “vulnerable” walking only on his stumps — it was this vulnerability in the face of a possible intruder, according to the defense, that made Pistorius so quick to shoot.

What’s next

The trial is scheduled to begin March 3 at the Pretoria High Court, and will be heard by a female judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa. There is no jury system in South Africa.

The prosecution has submitted a list of 107 witnesses, among them several of Pistorius’s ex-girlfriends, his immediate family members, an ex-boyfriend of Steenkamp, neighbors from the Silver Woods estate and ballistic and forensic experts.

Steenkamp’s mother, June, has said she will attend the proceedings.

Pistorius's lawyers have been in talks with Steenkamp family representatives regarding an out-of-court settlement, as Reeva Steenkamp is said to have been financially supporting her parents.

The trial will be a media circus, with journalists from around the world descending on Pretoria. A dedicated satellite TV channel is due to launch in South Africa the day before the trial begins, providing around-the-clock coverage of the case.

If convicted of premeditated murder, Pistorius could face life imprisonment with a minimum of 25 years before the chance of parole.

He faces an additional charge of possessing unlicensed ammunition, found when police searched his home following the shooting. He may yet be indicted on two other charges related to reckless shooting of firearms in public.

Here in South Africa, there continues to be intense speculation about the case, and a fresh round of tributes to Steenkamp broadcast on local media.

An analysis of South African media coverage released Thursday found that Zulu-language news programs have been far more critical of Pistorius than those of other language groups.

The tone of Zulu TV coverage was 82 percent critical, compared to Afrikaans news at 29 percent critical, according to Media Tenor South Africa, a research firm.

Researchers concluded that the negative coverage was “molding the public's perception that Pistorius was probably guilty.” But the court’s verdict remains to be seen.