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Journalist Documents The Many 'Trials Of Oscar Pistorius'

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Journalist Documents The Many 'Trials Of Oscar Pistorius'

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Journalist Documents The Many 'Trials Of Oscar Pistorius'

Journalist Documents The Many 'Trials Of Oscar Pistorius'

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Oscar Pistorius stunned the world when he ran on prosthetic legs in the 2012 Olympics, then shot his girlfriend dead months later. NPR's Scott Simon asks John Carlin about his new book on the athlete.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Valentine's Day 2013, and a world-famous athlete who inspired people around the world shot the woman he loved four times as she lay behind a bathroom door.

Is there anyone who hasn't heard? Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner, the extraordinary athlete who staggered the world with his Olympic speed on his prosthetic legs, shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend. He said he thought he'd heard an intruder behind the door.

Oscar Pistorius is in prison now, the first month of a five-year sentence for manslaughter, but with good behavior he could be out some time next year. The application of prosecutors for a new sentence will be heard next Tuesday, December 9.

John Carlin is an eminent journalist. He used to cover South Africa for The Independent. He's the author of several books, including "Knowing Mandela" and a book about the South African rugby team that became the film "Invictus." His new book, "Chase Your Shadow: The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius." And John joins us from Barcelona.

John, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN CARLIN: Great pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: The very title reminds us that in a sense this is hardly Oscar Pistorius's first trial because of course he was born with a fibula disease. And I didn't understand until reading the book the significant decision his parents made at the age of 11 months.

CARLIN: Yes, a truly, truly fateful decision. Oscar Pistorius was born with this congenital defect known as fibular hemimilia, which means he didn't have a fibula bone, which meant that he had his feet, his ankles were completely deformed. And his parents took the incredibly brave and tough decision to amputate both legs below the knee. And that was, as I say, an absolutely fateful decision.

SIMON: I wonder if you see the impetus that made him an athlete in any of that.

CARLIN: Well, I think that the critical figure was his mother. The parents got divorced when Oscar Pistorius was 6 years old. It was she who drummed it into him right from the very, very start of his life, Oscar, you can do anything you like, do not allow this to make you feel that you cannot do what other people can do.

And it was this drive of his mother's, I think, which is the absolutely critical ingredient in the tremendous ambition that he showed.

SIMON: We have to move to the death of Reeva Steenkamp behind that bathroom door and the trial. If I can ask this in the nicest way, how important was Reeva Steenkamp to Oscar Pistorius?

CARLIN: I think she was immensely important. And in a strange sort of way, you know, more important after he's killed her. He remains convinced that Reeva Steenkamp is the great love of his life, despite the fact that they were only together for about three-and-a-half months.

SIMON: The personal messages between the two were read out in court. And if you could set the scene for us - they were read by police captain Francois Moller, who offhand doesn't sound like he was any Ralph Fiennes when it comes to reading love messages.

CARLIN: (Laughter). No, that's right. In court, the prosecution had lots of these messages read out and there was this rather sort of, you know, dry police captain who read out all these messages. Now, the great majority of them were just these gooey expressions of love - now, I miss you. No, I miss you more. No, I miss you more.

But, there was one particular exchange when she actually said in one of these messages that was read out in court that she was scared of him. And of course the prosecution sort of make a great deal of this. But as a defense, I think correctly said, the great majority of the many, many messages they exchanged were, like I say, lovey-dovey messages - my angel, my boo, I love you so much.

SIMON: Yeah. Was he compelling on the stand?

CARLIN: Pistorius was, as the judge would later say, not a good witness at all. He was continually contradicting himself, confusing. Pistorius was compelling in the sense that he just broke down in the most sort of lyresque Shakespearian, highly dramatic way on numerous occasions. Not just weeping, but howling. You felt these sobs rise up from the pit of his stomach. And for those who seemed to think watching this on TV or hearing it on the radio that he was playacting, I think that observation was rather undermined by the fact that he was also retching and vomiting. And during the majority of the case, he actually had this green plastic bucket by his side because of his tendency to vomit when evidence was led which drew attention to the particular horror and the blood and the shooting of that night.

SIMON: To get to one of the key factors in the case, Oscar Pistorius said that he thought what he heard was an intruder. Now, South Africa has a famously high crime rate. He's a famously rich man who is notably vulnerable.

CARLIN: I think so. Look, the fact is that if you're a South African, particularly living in Johannesburg and you're not somewhat paranoid, you're missing a point. And Pistorius's contention that he felt that much more paranoid than the average South African person, I think was well substantiated. On the one hand, he was this sort of comic book superhero figure, but the fact is at night he takes off his prosthetic legs. He's there on his stumps. And I think it does give some credence to his contention that he was extraordinarily jumpy at the prospect of possible criminal attack.

SIMON: Yeah. What happens to Oscar Pistorius, the powerful symbol of how a human being can turn a disability into a strength?

CARLIN: He rose so high and you know, and the supreme irony that at his highest peak after the London Olympic and Paralympics Games, he meets this beautiful woman and then three months after meeting her, he shoots her dead, which obliterated in those four or five seconds everything that he'd labored so hard to build up in the whole of his life. And of course shed a very negative light on what a criminal place, violent place, South Africa is, when before of course he was the epitome of all of South Africa's greatest tributes, his tremendous ability to overcome obstacles, which of course is what South Africa is doing and done, overcome, you know, the legacy of apartheid.

SIMON: John Carlin. His new book, "Chase Your Shadow: The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius." Thanks so much for being with us.

CARLIN: Thank you very much.

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