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Worldwide Attention Expected For Track Star's Murder Trial


The man known around the world as the Blade Runner goes on trial next week for murder. Oscar Pistorius, who became a track star running on carbon fiber prosthetic limbs, and the first double leg amputee to run in the Olympic Games goes on trial for shooting his girlfriend, Reeva Steencamp, on Valentine's Day last year. He said it was an accident. The trial is expected to be followed all over the world and much of it will be broadcast live.

David Smith is Africa correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. He joins us now from Johannesburg where he's been following the story. Thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID SMITH: Thank you.

SIMON: Remind us what happened that night that Reeva Steencamp died.

SMITH: It was Valentine's night, the 14th of February 2013. She went to his house for what would be typically romantic evening. And the next thing we know that's happened is that around 3 a.m., she was dead. And Pistorius had shot through a toilet cubicle door. Pistorius, in quite a detailed affidavit at the bail hearing, gave a whole version of events claiming that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder, and thought she was a burglar - which is not an unknown phenomenon in South Africa.

SIMON: At Mr. Pistorius was not wearing his limbs and, I gather, felt that he could be in danger.

SMITH: Yes, there's been some debate through the court hearings on the media. The latest report suggests that, you know, he may be right about that. And that ballistic evidence that will come out during the trial will support his suggestion that he was walking on his stumps and did not take the time to put on his limbs, as the prosecution argues would make it more likely the murder was, as they say, it was premeditated.

SIMON: Tell us what we have to understand about the South African judicial system. For example, I gather there are no juries.

SMITH: South Africa purely has a judge who will be assisted by two assessors in this case. And part of the explanation for that now is still the legacy of racial apartheid in South Africa where it's just thought it would be too charged and too much bias to have a white jury for a black suspect, or vice versa. A judge who was a former social worker and crime reporter will basically decide whether Pistorius is guilty, and potentially going to prison for 25 years, or innocent and walking free.

SIMON: And she is a well-known judge, I gather.

SMITH: Relatively well known; she's made a couple of triumphant judgments precisely on cases involving violence against women. She twice gave men maximum sentences; one, indeed, for 252 years. So, really taking a strong stand on the issue of gender violence which is another big one in South Africa.

SIMON: David, do I have this right? This is such a huge story not just in South Africa, but specifically in South Africa they have established a new 24-hour cable channel to follow the trial?

SMITH: That is correct. Yeah, this is, you know, really a story that transcends South Africa, that has fascinated many people around the world. Because Pistorius, you know, really was unique - is a unique international sporting star and was a big hit of the London Olympics, only a few months before this tragedy happened.

SIMON: And I guess we should remind ourselves that this case begins with the death of Reeva Steencamp, a real tragedy.

SMITH: Yes, and a few weeks ago I went to see her family. Reeva Steencamp's parents speaking of the media attention, really felt hounded. So they've moved house, a remote little hamlet, really. And, you know, journalists who go there, including me, were given fairly short shrift.

What we apparently will see on Monday is Reeva Steencamp's mother attend court for the first time in this process and, you know, come face-to-face with Oscar Pistorius for the first time since her daughter's death.

SIMON: David Smith, of The Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg, thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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