Mar 19

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Is Blade Runner’s killing lawful or unlawful?

Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic and Olympic sprinter, is being accused by prosecutors of premeditated murder of a model name Reeva Steencamp.  His defense?  Mr. Pistorius did not intend to kill his girlfriend; rather, he thought there was an intruder.

For a case that has just began, I am surprised by how much evidence has already been presented.  Defense attorneys made the unusual move of presenting to the court Mr. Pistorius’ sworn statement describing his defense.  This move is unusual because it locks Mr. Pistorius into a position that could be contradictory to future evidence that is found or tested.  Defense attorneys were likely pressured by Mr. Pistorius to do whatever it took to release him so that he could save his celebrity image.

What relevant evidence has been revealed so far?

  • three bullets shot;
  • blood stained bat found in Mr. Pistorius’ possession;
  • autopsy shows wounds to skull allegedly consistent with beating by bat;
  • bullet holes through small bathroom door, allegedly at level where person would have to shoot down and be standing up;
  • one neighbor allegedly heard arguments before shooting;
  • another neighbor allegedly saw light on before shooting;
  • Mr. Pistorius allegedly put prosthetic legs on before killing.

Under California law, could Blade Runner’s killing be considered lawful?

Yes, his killing could be justified under the theory of self defense if he (1)  reasonably believed that he was defending a home against someone who intended to commit an act of violence against someone inside; (2) reasonably believed the danger was imminent and (3) reasonably believed the use of deadly force was necessary to defend against such danger; and (4) used no more force than was reasonably necessary to defend against the danger.

Here, Mr. Pistorius believed he was defending his home against an intruder.  This belief is reasonable because he resides in South Africa where there are frequent break-ins.  He reasonably believed the danger was imminent because he heard someone in his bathroom, right next to his bedroom.  His belief, however, to use deadly force against such danger was not clearly reasonable because he did not see the intruder with any sort of deadly weapon.  Lastly, there is definitely an issue with the amount of force he used to defend against the danger.  Three shots combined with beating on the head by a baseball bat is arguably too much force.

This particular defense is known as the castle doctrine and designates the home as a place where a person enjoys certain protection and immunity from prosecution.  Although a person is not justified to use deadly force to protect property; violence threatened against the home is treated differently under the law.

If Blade Runner’s killing was unlawful, what type of homicide is he guilty of?

  • First Degree- acted willfully, deliberately, and with premeditation.  Mr. Pistorius arguably acted willfully or with the intent to kill since he fired a lethal weapon at Ms. Steencamp  multiple times, and within close range.  Under California law, the lethal weapon must be fired in a manner to inflict mortal wounds and this is not yet clear from the evidence.  Moreover, the evidence shows that he beat Ms. Steencamp’s head with a baseball bat, which is another lethal act.  The issue is whether Mr. Pistorius acted with deliberation and premediation which can be found by three different factors – planning activity, motive and the manner of killing.  If evidence is presented that they he had a history of domestic violence with her-  providing the motive of control, or that he was unprovoked- providing rationale behind his decision, then deliberation and premediation may be found.
  • Second Degree- intended to kill but was provoked.  Two separate witnesses may be able to provide evidence that the killing was caused by provocation – one that will testify the lights were on and the other that there was an argument.  However, the defense has already given up this argument by claiming that he did not know the victim was Ms. Steencamp.  The prosecution will not argue second degree when they could argue first degree.  Also, questionable that a verbal argument would qualify as sufficient provocation to kill.
  • Voluntary Manslaughter- (1) killed someone because of a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion, or (2) due to imperfect self defense.  Heat of passion murder is exemplified where a husband comes home to find his wife sleeping with another man and kills the man on the spot.  In this case, the defense could argue that Mr. Pistorius was provoked by the intruder’s illegal entry in his home.  However, there is an issue as to whether he acted from emotion since he arguably  put his prosthetic legs on before firing- showing rationale.  Imperfect self defense means that either Mr. Pistorius’s belief of imminent danger or his belief that deadly force was necessary was unreasonable.
  • Involuntary manslaughter- does not intend to kill, but rather acts with an extreme amount of negligence.  The typical case of involuntary manslaughter is where a person drives drunk and gets into a fatal car accident.  The difference between involuntary manslaughter and the other homicide offenses is whether the defendant was aware of the risk to life that his actions created.  Here, there is no case for involuntary manslaughter as Mr. Pistorius used a gun and a bat to beat Ms. Steencamps head – both lethal actions.








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