World News

02.23.13

Will the Oscar Pistorius Murder Case Be the Next O.J. Simpson Trial?

Two popular athletes accused of killing beautiful blondes in cases marred by bad police work. Lauren Ashburn on the parallels.

As the South African judge in the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing began to speak, television networks had been told privately that his decision would take about 15 minutes.

Nearly two hours later, he was still going strong. Desmond Nair knew this was his moment in the worldwide spotlight, and he wasn’t about to relinquish it with a quick thumbs up or down on whether the Olympian should be held without bond for allegedly killing his gorgeous girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in his bathroom. Shades of Lance Ito.

Remember him? He’s the judge who relentlessly played to the cameras in the O.J. Simpson case, which set the bar in 1994 for an era of high-profile celebrity trials.

In fact, there are striking parallels between the two cases, putting aside the fact that Pistorius (who was eventually granted bail on Friday) doesn’t even have a trial date.

Look at the similarities between the two defendants:

Both are famous athletes. Simpson, aka The Juice, was a barrier-breaking football hero known for gallivanting through airports at breakneck speed in Hertz commercials. Pistorius, aka Blade Runner, who had a double amputation below his knees as a child, dashed around tracks in custom prosthetics, making history by winning a spot at the Summer Olympics in London.

Each man was larger than life. Both had a past involving reports of domestic-violence complaints that were largely overlooked before the killings.

The women involved could almost be mistaken for sisters: Steenkamp was an accomplished professional model who at times wore little more than lingerie and high heels, sporting wavy long blonde hair and a come-hither look. Nicole Simpson, O.J.’s ex-wife and a former nightclub waitress, also had long blonde locks, a sexy build, and dressed to the nines.

Each man was larger than life. Both had a past involving reports of domestic-violence complaints that were largely overlooked before the killings.

In both instances, news of the murders shocked the athletes’ fans. How could these heroic figures have been accused of such heinous crimes? And in such exclusive locales: One in the palm tree-lined California streets of posh Brentwood, where O.J. owned a $5 million Tudor mansion; the other in exotic Pretoria, South Africa, where Pistorius lived in a marble-floored mansion also surrounded by towering palms.

And how strange is it that these cases are both marred by sloppy police work? South African authorities had to replace the lead investigator after news emerged that he was facing seven charges of attempted murder. And police now concede several mistakes, including having missed a shell casing in the toilet bowl on which Steenkamp was shot, entering the crime scene without shoe covers (because officers had run out of them), and prematurely identifying a substance found in Pistorius’s bedroom as testosterone.

In the Simpson case, LAPD Detective Mark Furhman was accused of planting a bloody glove at the crime scene, and there was testimony that he had a history of racial animosity. Furhman pleaded no contest to perjury charges and was sentenced to three years’ probation, making him the only person convicted of criminal charges in the Simpson proceedings.  

Video screenshot

A South African magistrate allowed Oscar Pistorius to go free on bail Friday. Check out the emotional response from the courtroom.

One thing is certain: the Pistorius trial is shaping up to be as big a media circus as the Simpson spectacle. Ito’s decision to allow cameras at the Simpson trial—which enabled CNN to provide wall-to-wall coverage—turned even such bit players as houseboy Kato Kaelin into household names. In Nair’s courtroom, cameras were banned, leaving the media with only audio of the proceedings (which CNN ran in its entirety on Friday). 

To be sure, there are differences. The murder weapon in South Africa was a gun, while a knife was used to kill Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Pistorius acknowledges that he shot Steenkamp, although he claims it was a case of mistaken identity. O.J. denied having been at the murder scene and vowed to search for the real killer. Simpson, in a bit of poetic justice, is now serving time for the kidnapping and robbery of two sports-memorabilia dealers.

Of course the O.J. murder trial ended with an acquittal. While the Pistorius trial could generate even more global interest in this digital age, it’s unclear what fate awaits him. 

Are we in for another overhyped, overdramatized extravaganza that does little more than feed our appetite for salacious fare? Have we so quickly lost sight of kids being gunned down in Chicago and other cities? Why are they inside-the-paper news?

Sure, the Pistorius case is inherently interesting, but it’s also just a local crime that happens to involve high-profile, attractive, and accomplished people. So much for focusing scarce media resources on global warming or the budget sequester. But there are no ratings in that.