Updated: Feb. 15, 2013 at 8:00 a.m. EST
South African prosecutors on Friday formally charged “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius with shooting and killing his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day. At Pretoria Magistrates Court, prosecutors told chief magistrate Desmond Nair they would argue that Pistorius committed “premeditated murder” on Feb. 14 at his home in the South African capital. In the dock, Pistorius, dressed in a dark gray suit and blue shirt, cried silently, bent over and buried his head in his hands when he was formally charged with one count of murder. From behind, his father Henke, brother Carl and sister Aimee leaned forward to try to comfort him. Pistorius was, in the words of his defense lawyer, in an “extremely traumatized state of mind.” Nair postponed the defense’s application for bail until Tuesday. Pistorius will be held in police custody until then.
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Police have said that Steenkamp was shot in the head and the hand. Local media reports suggested Friday that the police had been called to Pistorius’ home at the Silver Woods secure housing estate in Pretoria just past midnight after neighbors reported hearing a loud argument. They were then called back a second time two hours later, around 3:00 a.m., after the shooting. The Afrikaans newspaper Die Beeld reported Steenkamp had been shot four times through a bathroom door and had been hit in the hand, the pelvis, the chest and the head. On Thursday a police spokeswoman discounted initial media reports that Pistorius shot Steenkamp accidentally, thinking she was an intruder, and added that officers were investigating “previous allegations of a domestic nature” at Pistorius’ home.
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Pistorius’ family and his management released a statement Friday calling into question the charge that he murdered Steenkamp. Issued from London, the statement read, “The alleged murder is disputed in the strongest terms,” and noted that Pistorius “would like to send his deepest sympathies to the family of Reeva.”
The case has stunned South Africa and the wider world. Steenkamp, 29, was a rising star in South Africa as a strikingly beautiful magazine cover girl and reality-TV star. But it is the sudden and tragic turn in Pistorius’ story that has drawn bewilderment and disbelief. Pistorius, 26, was born with no fibula in either of his legs, and both were amputated below the knee before he was 1. Encouraged by a mother who refused to treat him as anything but equal, he used prosthetic limbs to excel at able-bodied sports during high school. Then, as he ran to recover from a rugby injury using carbon-fiber “blades” that mimicked the action of a cheetah, his father realized he was posting world-record Paralympian times.
Pistorius quickly established himself as a world-class Paralympian sprinter but, accustomed to competing in able-bodied sports, fought a long battle against those who claimed his prosthetics gave him an unfair advantage to also take part in the Olympics. Last year, at the Games in London, he emerged as one of the stars, collecting two Paralympic gold medals and two silvers, breaking two world records and one Paralympic record. He also competed in an Olympic final and semi-final.
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At the time, his sour and ungracious outburst after losing the T44 200m final to Brazilian Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira, complaining that Oliveira’s blades gave him an unfair advantage because they were too long, raised some eyebrows in the athletics world. But it was not enough to dent the almost universal adulation Pistorius drew for his remarkable story of triumph over adversity and the manner in which he was single-handedly overturning the global image of disability. His picture graced billboards and magazine covers across the world. In South Africa, a country that was still living with the white-supremacist apartheid regime where futures were determined by the accident of birth, the story of a boy born disadvantaged who overcame all obstacles to conquer the very world from which his disadvantage should have barred him, made the impossible seem possible. Like few other figures since Nelson Mandela, Pistorius’ inspirational example was able to unite his divided country. Today, as a sobbing Pistorius began to face up to his stunning fall, South Africa — and much of the wider world — finds itself in need of a new hero.
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