In a brisk 12-minute hearing this morning, a South African court formally indicted Olympian sprinter Oscar Pistorius on charges of premeditated murder and illegal possession of ammunition in the Valentine’s Day death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.
As media cameras clicked in rapid fire around him, Mr. Pistorius huddled with his brother and sister in a brief prayer in the Pretoria courtroom before listening as magistrate Desmond Nair read the charges against him and set the date for the trial, which will begin on March 3, next year.
The indictment comes on what would have been Ms. Steenkamp’s 30th birthday, after being delayed by two months to give the state additional time to finish its investigation. On Monday prosecutors announced that they were now prepared to make the case that Pistorius "did unlawfully and intentionally kill a person” – Steenkamp – on the morning of Feb. 14, and will call 107 witnesses to support the charge, according to South Africa's Mail and Guardian newspaper.
Indeed, neither the prosecution nor Pistorius himself deny that he shot and killed Steenkamp through a locked bathroom door in his luxury Pretoria home earlier this year.
Instead, the trial will pivot on his intention. The state claims that Pistorius put on his prosthetic legs, retrieved his gun, and knowingly shot Steenkamp as she cowered near the toilet.
"Some of the state witnesses heard a woman scream, followed by moments of silence, then heard gunshots and then more screaming," the indictment stated, reports ABC news.
But Pistorius claims he shot into the locked bathroom on the morning of Feb. 14, because he believed an intruder was hiding inside, and that he was not wearing his legs at the time. Only afterwards, he says, did he realize it was Steenkamp behind the closed door.
The investigation into the death hit speed bumps earlier this year when the lead investigator admitted to tampering with evidence at the crime scene and falsely accused Pistorius of doping. After news surfaced that the investigator, detective Hilton Botha, was himself facing an attempted murder charge in a bungled high-speed chase in 2011, he was dropped from the case.
The first double-amputee runner to compete against able-bodied athletes in the Olympic games, Pistorius’ fall from grace has attracted a raft of international media attention – much of it unwelcome. In June, British television station Sky News published images of the blood-stained bathroom where Steenkamp was shot, prompting Mr. Nair, the magistrate, to warn that "scandalous and possibly contemptuous" reporting could jeopardize Pistorius’ right to a fair trial.
The athlete has kept a low profile since he was released on bail in February, and is currently staying with an uncle in an upscale suburb of Pretoria. If convicted, he faces life in prison.