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Column: Oscar Pistorius of old is gone for good

Thursday - 3/7/2013, 12:09pm  ET

By JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Columnist

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - Flying to South Africa to report on Oscar Pistorius, I went with an open mind about the night he shot and killed his girlfriend, not least because in competing at the London Olympics on prosthetic legs, Pistorius showed it isn't wise to rush to judgment and that appearances can be deceiving.

Two weeks later, I return home to Europe no closer to knowing or really understanding exactly why Pistorius pulled the trigger of his 9 mm pistol in the early hours of Valentine's Day.

I'm not convinced we'll ever know for certain, given that Reeva Steenkamp, the only person other than him in the track star's villa that night, is dead.

I wouldn't bet on South African police furnishing all the answers. Not after watching scratchy footage of officers attaching a taxi driver by his wrists to the back of their police vehicle and dragging him down a street in a township east of Johannesburg. Mido Macia later died in a jail cell.

This was two weeks after Pistorius killed Steenkamp. The eight officers charged with murder for Macia's death aren't the same crack team working the Pistorius case, led by a veteran of the force described as South Africa's "top detective" by the police commissioner.

Still, the videotaped brutalizing of Macia and missteps by the first chief investigator in the Pistorius shooting, who was subsequently replaced after it emerged that he is facing attempted murder charges, did nothing to inspire confidence in the professionalism of South Africa's police.

Some here believe Pistorius' legal and forensic team will concentrate in coming months on picking holes in police evidence and that the two sides might eventually reach a plea deal, avoiding a high-stakes court drama that would be South Africa's equivalent of the "trial of the century" for O.J. Simpson, the former NFL star acquitted in 1995 in the Los Angeles slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman.

Either way, the Pistorius of old is gone for good.

Watching the "Blade Runner" sprint at the London Olympics was so uplifting. Standing tall on his carbon-fiber prosthetics, the double-amputee runner could have been a metaphor for South Africa _ damaged by its past but not despondent.

Pistorius embodied can-do spirit and the idea that people shouldn't be judged on looks, which was the rule South Africa's racist white-minority apartheid government used to enforce so brutally.

But after making Olympic history, the handsome star's idyllic image took a beating. Pistorius was a poor loser and hypocrite at the London Paralympics when he moaned about the "unbelievably long" prosthetic legs of another amputee runner who beat him.

And the image shattered when he shot his telegenic 29-year-old girlfriend in his bathroom toilet and prosecutors charged him with murder.

Pistorius' account of what happened shifted some blame onto South Africa, with him saying that his fear of violent crime was a factor in the killing. Having been such a brilliant ambassador in London for the so-called "Rainbow Nation," Pistorius painted his country as a sometimes frightening place in explaining the shooting.

"I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders," he said in his affidavit to the magistrate who freed him on bail. "I have received death threats before. I have also been a victim of violence and of burglaries before. For that reason, I kept my firearm, a 9mm Parabellum, underneath my bed."

Pistorius said he woke up in the early hours of Feb. 14 and heard noise in his bathroom toilet, which "filled me with horror and fear of an intruder."

"I felt a sense of terror rushing over me," Pistorius testified. "As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself."

"I fired shots at the toilet door."

Pistorius said he then found Steenkamp slumped inside the toilet and that later, "she died in my arms."

Living in France, which had 743 murders in 2011, being shot is the last thing I worry about. Although police figures show homicide rates have come down significantly in South Africa, there are still 15,000 murders here a year. That is more than in the United States. With 311 million people compared to South Africa's 51 million, the FBI counted 14,612 murders there in 2011.

A 2011 survey by the official statistics agency found that one third of South African families avoid going alone to parks and other open spaces because they fear crime, rising to 43 percent in Gauteng province that includes Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, where Pistorius lives.

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