Dr Liz Yardley

Dr Liz Yardley

By Dr Liz Yardley, Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology

This week will see the world cast eyes once again on Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter previously known for his achievements on the athletics track, notably as the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics. Pistorius is due to stand trial later this year, accused of the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who he admits to shooting through the bathroom door of his home having mistaken her for an intruder. The prosecution places a different interpretation upon events, arguing that this was a case of pre-meditated murder and Pistorius intended to kill Reeva Steenkamp.

Pistorius is not the first celebrity to stand trial for murder, preceding him are a handful of other notorious cases. Most will be aware of OJ Simpson, the former actor and American footballer, who stood trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, when the two were found stabbed to death in 1994. Simpson was found not guilty in a criminal court but was later found liable in later civil proceedings. Most will also be aware of record producer Phil Spector, famous for his work with The Beatles, who was convicted in a second trial (the first resulted in a hung jury) following the death of actress Lana Clarkson, found shot dead at his home in 2003.

A few things strike me about celebrity trials, which we need to bear in mind before we prepare to take up our roles as armchair judges, juries and executioners once again.

In the period preceding a celebrity trial, we believe we are in a position to cast judgment, more so than when the defendant has not had any kind of public profile. Snapshots of the defendant’s behaviour prior to the crime, both favourable and unfavourable, have become tabloid staples, chewed over across living rooms and dinner tables – take for example Pistorius’s bad sportsmanship following defeat at the London Olympics. However, these are not the grounds upon which to assess a defendant’s mental state or motive when they commit a crime. We do not truly KNOW these people; snippets of information – accurate or not – do not give us meaningful insights into their lives or decisions. In addition, celebrity and non-celebrity trials alike appear to be accompanied by an insatiable appetite for access to physical as well as psychological evidence, particularly relating to the crime scene. Photographs of the bloodied bathroom floor at Pistorius’s home have been doing the rounds online for several days now.

This leads to my second and most important point – in the media whirlwind surrounding these cases, we are in danger of losing sight of the devastating events that brought them about and the impact upon those caught up in the aftermath. Regardless of whether or not the defendant is a celebrity, a life has been lost and there will forever be a gap for those left behind. We become overly fixated on celebrity defendants, in some cases to the extreme of casting them as the victim. Whilst I imagine that most people would recognise the names OJ Simpson and Phil Spector, how many more remember Nicole Brown, Ron Goldman and Lana Clarkson? Ten years from now I imagine that most people will recognise the name Oscar Pistorius. I hope that they also remember Reeva Steenkamp, a successful young woman – a law graduate and model, who had already accomplished a lot and was on the cusp of achieving even more. Whilst these details were prominent in the immediate aftermath of her death, they seem to be somewhat lacking from coverage of the case in the past few days. I fear that the picture of Reeva Steenkamp that her family was keen to imprint in our minds is already beginning to fade as yet another celebrity defendant takes centre stage.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.