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The Oscar Pistorius trial: Africa’s O.J. Simpson?

Double-amputee Olympian Oscar Pistorius appears in court last August to be indicted on charges of murder and illegal possession of ammunition in the shooting death of his girlfriend on Valentine's Day 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

The trial of South African amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius hasn't even started yet, and already it's starting to look like a media circus: Parts of the trial will be shown on live television by remote-controlled cameras in the courtroom (an audio-only feed will broadcast the entire trial); a Twitter-account for  members of the Pistorius family has been set up and claims to reveal the "hard truth"; prosecution evidence has leaked days before the trial begins; and a South African bakery has been forced to apologize for a series of cookies referencing Pistorius's case, accused of bad taste.

The madness is reaching such proportions that people are struggling to find things to compare it to. “South Africa’s O.J. Simpson case," seems to be the accepted analogy, but how accurate is it?

It's true that, like Simpson, Pistorius is a high-profile athlete accused of murdering a woman with whom he had a relationship. In fact, Kenichi Serino at the Christian Science Monitor points out that one South African television anchor has argued that Pistorius is a bigger star than Simpson was at the time of his girlfriend's killing – Simpson, a football star, wasn't as well known internationally as the Olympic sprinter, whose renown went beyond the metal "blades" he used to run (hence the nickname "Blade Runner"). Pistorius had won two gold medals at the London Paralympic Games just months before the alleged murder, for example. He was very much at his peak.

In both cases, the victim was a glamorous blonde. Simpson was divorced from Nicole Brown Simpson when she was found stabbed to death at her home in Los Angeles (along with her friend Ron Goldman) in June 1994. Pistorius was still dating his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, when he shot her to death through their bathroom door in February last year. Pistorius has said he believed that there was an intruder in his bathroom and that his girlfriend was in bed, and stated that he fired the shots in self-defense. The prosecution contends that it was a premeditated murder.

In terms of evidence, things are a little different: Simpson claimed to have not been at the house, so much of the evidence revolved around placing him at the scene. Pistorius was at the scene and admits that he shot his girlfriend; he claims it was just a mistake. Evidence in the case, NBC News reports, includes two iPhones Steenkamp apparently had with her in the bathroom and what clothes she was wearing - evidence that could be used to suggest she was fleeing Pistorius. The Guardian reports that a bloodied cricket bat found in the house may also play a role, which has drawn comparison to a bloody leather glove found at the scene of Brown's murder.

Simpson was a black man in America, and some felt that both the police and the media were biased against him. Notably, when Time Magazine ran his mugshot on the cover, it was clearly altered to so he appeared darker. On the other hand, Pistorius is a white man in South Africa. His race has become a factor in South African media coverage, as well as concerns about gun use, violence against women and economic inequality.

The biggest difference right now, is that no one knows what will happen in the Pistorius case. People might disagree with the verdict in the Simpson case, but he was found not guilty. In South Africa, where a judge, not a jury, will reach a decision, Pistorius's fate hangs in the balance.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the relationship between Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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Adam Taylor · February 28, 2014

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