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20 June 2016

Pistorius sentencing: Oscar’s ‘ploy for sympathy’

According to CyberShrink Barry Roux knew that testifying wasn't going to produce much sympathy for his client – so he had to find a non-verbal way to refocus the attention on Oscar.

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A murder trial doesn’t usually bring up thoughts of poetry, but as Oscar’s pre-sentencing hearings ended, I couldn’t help remembering the ending of the poem The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”  

The most honest part of the whole trial had been the quiet and tragic evidence of Reeva’s father, Barry Steenkamp, the previous day – harrowing and eloquent. But Roux wanted to refocus the attention on Oscar and grab the headlines again. He didn’t want any cross-examination that might reveal more of his evasions, and he knew that testifying frankly wasn’t going to garner much sympathy for his client.    

Oscar has the last word, without saying anything

He wanted Oscar to beg loudly for clemency and sympathy, to revive the judge’s feelings of pity. Although Oscar’s physical disability was utterly irrelevant to sentencing, Roux has valiantly struggled throughout the trial to make it the only issue. Though Oscar’s disability is legally irrelevant and wasn’t accepted by the SCA, Roux knows that anything becomes relevant and convincing if you repeat it often enough. 

He needed to re-inforce the unconvincing story Oscar told, which needs him to be hapless and almost immobilised without his prosthetic legs. We should however not forget the defence team’s tape of Oscar re-enacting the events of that night – which was so revealing that they took great care not to show it to the court as it clearly showed some of the claims made by Oscar and his team to be highly inaccurate. 

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The footage showed Oscar in his uncle’s mansion, running and moving around nimbly and steadily on his stumps, holding out his arm and pointing a pretend gun, after lugging his sister (playing the part of Reeva) out of a bathroom and downstairs. Not only did it unintentionally reveal him to be more mobile and less helpless than has been persistently claimed, but it also revealed that he was also able to do it all without getting emotional at all – calm to the degree of being almost playful. 

Roux wanted to obliterate the image of the shaking and destroyed father of the victim, and leave everyone with an unforgettable image of the shaking killer, profoundly disabled, a crushed, humiliated figure, a perpetrator turned victim. 

Self humiliation

Stripped to his shorts and T-shirt, he hobbled across the court-room, to stand in front of everyone, shaking, head bowed, pathetic and pitiable. Dramatically memorable, but not open to cross-examination, he created a picture that screamed: “Pity me! Overlook all I have said and done! Just set me free!” On stage this would be called a coup de théâtre , a sudden dramatic effect designed to make the audience gasp.

For some of us, it was perhaps the first time we felt sorry for Oscar. Not because of his physical state, which has not changed since he was able to become rich and famous despite his limitations, but for the way he was prepared to humiliate himself to illustrate how desperate he is not to go to jail.  

Read: Oscar’s weird followers live in a fantasy world

The Daily Maverick and the Guardian reported that “Pistorius’s defence team said they wanted to show the court that he was no longer a ‘strong, ambitious man winning gold medals’.”  And they quoted Roux as saying, “I don’t want to overplay vulnerability … I don’t want to overplay disability … It doesn’t mean because he’s vulnerable that he can do what he likes. But please let’s understand … who is this man that you must sentence?”

Power and entitlement

The performance seems to have been a response to the father’s testimony, and to his request that the remaining, previously withheld, photos of the dead Reeva, be released, as would normally have been the case. Naturally they feared that the pictures might be a too vivid reminder of Oscar’s crime, but couldn’t argue against this.

I’ve seen the pictures, and it is seriously doubtful if they could prevent such awful things from happening again. Attention to many other factors might be more helpful, e.g. his unwholesome passion for guns, his false perception of violence as a necessary sign of masculinity, and the sense of power and entitlement that often seizes the rich and celebrated.

Read: Being 'butch' is bad for men's health

The pictures should be in the case file, and the file open, as in all cases.  That doesn’t mean the media should necessarily show them, though. There are after all many things one is allowed to do, which one should not do.  

Read more:

Pistorius sentencing: Barry Steenkamp’s brave evidence

Why boys play with guns

Do more gun laws mean fewer gun deaths?

Note: Views expressed by our columnists do not necessarily reflect those of Health24.com or 24.com

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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