Are you watching the Oscar Pistorius trial? Probably not.
When O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of his wife 18 years ago, American society more or less came to a standstill. Wastebaskets overflowed, pots of pasta boiled over on the stove and neglected toddlers idly chewed on cigarette butts while supposedly rational moms and dads sat glued to the thrusts and parries of Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran.
But O.J. was an American icon. Oscar Pistorius is somebody’s else’s business, so his trial, predictably, is causing much less commotion here. That’s too bad, really, because it’s a fascinating study, and most of the procedure is viewable live via Internet, or after the fact on daily video recaps.
The case itself, of course, is sweeping in its tragic spectacle. A beloved athlete with springy, futuristic blades instead of lower legs, a controversial Olympian, shot his girlfriend, a successful model, to death in his bathroom in Pretoria, South Africa. He either viciously murdered Reena Steenkamp or killed her accidentally, mistaking her for an intruder (after quickly donning his springy, futuristic blades).
With the passing of Nelson Mandela, Pistorius is probably the second-most famous South African alive, after Bishop Desmond Tutu. (You don’t count, Steve Nash!) And he is being tried for murder.
Already the trial has served up the tale of Pistorius accidentally discharging a handgun, Plaxico-like, in a crowded Johannesburg restaurant about a month before the fatal shooting of Steenkamp, and the image of Pistorius holding his head and sobbing while a neighbor described finding the sprinter trying to apply first aid to Steenkamp’s bloody body the night of the incident. The phrase “bloodcurdling screams” was used, and a former girlfriend said Pistorius cheated on her – with Steenkamp – and once shot a bullet out of a car’s sunroof.
OK, let’s be honest. Real courtroom scenes, no matter how gripping the charges, are tedious affairs, filled with a lot more paper turning than dramatic accusation. But the Pistorius trial has its lurid appeal.
For one thing, the South African setting lends an exotic air for American viewers. The attorneys wear floor-length black frocks, and people enunciate in that lower-continent accent that seems be somewhere between Australian and the snake language that Harry Porter speaks. The judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa, is a black woman, like you see in every courtroom drama in American movies and TV series, but almost never see in an actual American courtroom. At one point in last week’s footage, the video suddenly cut to an extended live shot of a street scene, presumably outside the courthouse in Pretoria. It was raining.
No, Thokozile Matilda Masipa will never attain the level of fame reached by Lance Ito, not in this country anyway. But she is presiding over a show that fits American sensibilities like a glove.