Reeva Steencamp's final message, academic hubris, and a legal philosophy view of the case

A final message versus academic hubris

USA Today reported that, “The South African Broadcasting Corp. [SABC] aired the Tropika Island of Treasure program, showing the late Steenkamp — the victim of a Valentine's Day shooting at Pistorius' home — laughing and smiling in Jamaica when it was filmed last year."

And the Guardian noted that, “The SABC was also attacked by Rachel Jewkes, the director of the gender and health research unit at the South African Medical Research Council. "It sounds incredibly tasteless," she said. "I struggle to think what it would be like for her family to see her swanning around and being normal on TV."

Hmmm. Maybe try asking them?

USA Today: “Steenkamp's family said earlier Saturday that they had not been contacted by either the SABC — South Africa's national broadcaster — or the show's producers for permission to air it, but were not opposed to it because Reeva [Steenkamp] wanted everyone to see it.

"'Her last words to us personally was that she wants us to watch it,' Sharon Steenkamp said, hours before the program was shown."

Or ask the victim:

The Guardian quoting Steenkamp from the show: "'I think that the way you go out, not just your journey in life, but the way that you go out and you make your exit is so important. You've either made an impact in a positive way or a negative way, but just maintain integrity and maintain class and just always be true to yourself.'

"Before blowing kisses to the camera, she added: 'And I'm going to miss you all so much. I love you very, very much.'"

A legal philosophy take

There does not seem at this stage to be any controversy about whether Oscar Pistorius was the one who pulled the trigger and set in motion the objective cause of death of Reeva Steenkamp. This means the entire case will revolve around the question of whether the shooting was intentional or negligent.

Accidental already seems like quite a stretch, if the following is to be believed. The Guardian: "Media reports in South Africa continue to claim that Pistorius, 26, told police the shooting was a 'horrible accident' after he mistakenly believed 29-year-old Steenkamp to be an intruder. One newspaper suggested that he fired four shots through a bathroom door."

Shooting through a door at an unidentified target might be negligent at best (for shooting without successfully identifying the target), but "accidental" doesn't quite seem to fit even this account.

Without taking any position on the facts of the case, which remain sketchy, in my view, based on action-based legal theory (disclaimer: not necessarily equal to positive law in this or any other jurisdiction, but rather a philosophical position), the shooter took an action. This means there was a human means/ends structure. Firing the gun in a particular direction was the means. The end or objective of the action, what the person had in mind in taking the action, is what is contested, and the two stories contrast sharply: 1) to neutralize a threatening intruder or 2) to murder a woman in cold blood.

In both cases, however, the action objectively caused the death of the victim. This "objective causality stemming from an (intentional) action” element means the shooter ought to be liable for damages to the family, to insurers, etc., and this would be true in either case, whether the act was negligent or intentional. He took an action. That action created the harm. He carries the liability and responsibility for the results.

The main differential questions that stem from the negligence versus intent issue would seem to be: What kind of person is this? Can he be trusted? Is he dangerous? How should one treat him and deal with him (or not) now and in the future? And so on. What remains then, is the potentially tough task of establishing the actual facts of the case in such a way as to make the judgment of which it was—intent or negligence? Yet the key issue of personal liability and responsibility appears, in either case, to already be clear.