The vital question may linger forever: Did Oscar Pistorius know he was shooting at his girlfriend?

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — In the decade since Oscar Pistorius pulled the trigger four times on his 9mm pistol, firing into the head and body of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp as she stood inside a locked toilet cubicle in his home, the vital question has still never been answered: Did the world-famous Olympic runner know he was shooting at and killing his girlfriend that Valentine’s Day in 2013?

Pistorius has always claimed that he didn’t, that he mistook her for an intruder in his home. Steenkamp’s family believes he intended to shoot the 29-year-old model and law graduate after becoming enraged in a nighttime argument.

Only Pistorius really knows for sure what he did, and he may be the only person who ever will.

The lasting twist of Pistorius’ case, which shocked and riveted millions and was back in the spotlight Friday when he was granted parole, is that even his conviction for murder didn’t provide an answer to the lingering question.

Pistorius’ parole comes 10 years after the killing. He will be released from prison on Jan. 5, but will be constantly monitored by officials until his full 13-year, five-month sentence for murder ends in December 2029, the Department of Corrections said. Pistorius, who turned 37 this week, will have served just under nine years in prison when he’s let out. Serious offenders in South Africa must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole.

Pistorius, who had his lower legs amputated as a baby but became a champion athlete, was ultimately found guilty of murder in Steenkamp’s shooting on a principle of law called dolus eventualis. It means he knew the person — whoever it was — would likely be killed when he shot through that door in a bathroom in his Pretoria villa, and went ahead anyway. It’s comparable to third-degree murder in the U.S.

But when South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal delivered that ruling after overturning a lesser manslaughter conviction, it didn’t find that Pistorius knew it was Steenkamp and intended to kill her. It also didn’t accept his argument that he was shooting in self-defense at what he thought was a threat to him.

It was a kind of somewhere-in-the-middle that sent Pistorius to prison for longer than his original five-year sentence for manslaughter, but it may leave complete closure elusive forever for the people that mattered most after the killing — Steenkamp’s family.

As Pistorius attended his parole hearing at a prison in the South African capital of Pretoria on Friday, the words of Reeva Steenkamp’s mother, June, rang out outside the jail gates.

They were not delivered by June Steenkamp herself, but by a family friend who read out a statement on her behalf. The statement was submitted to the parole board considering Pistorius’ early release, but was also made public to ensure that June’s voice was heard, and her daughter was remembered.

June Steenkamp said the rest of her life threatens to be “an unending black hole of pain and loneliness” after yet another loss, that of her husband and Reeva’s father. Barry Steenkamp died in September. June Steenkamp said she still believed Pistorius was lying about the killing, but had managed to forgive him as “I would not be able to survive if I had to cling to my anger.”

She said she and Barry had “big dreams” for Reeva, who also was an activist fighting the scourge of violence against women in South Africa — a tragic precursor to her own death.

“Were our dreams for Reeva fulfilled?” June Steenkamp said. “Of course not.”

She said she did not believe Pistorius had been rehabilitated because he still refused to admit to “the dastardly murder of Reeva.” She only wanted him to one day come clean, she said.

June Steenkamp’s statement was delivered by Rob Matthews, a South African man whose own daughter was murdered in 2004 and who had become a family friend to the Steenkamps, united in the pain of their losses. Matthews noted that Pistorius’ parole was granted a day before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

Pistorius will be released to live at his uncle’s mansion in an affluent suburb of Pretoria. Most of his life is still likely ahead of him, even if his once-inspiring image has been shattered forever.

Steenkamp family lawyer Tania Koen encapsulated it when she spoke about Pistorius’ possible release earlier this year and if it was right. She said that no prison sentence for him, no matter how long, would ever really make any difference to Steenkamp’s family after her death.

“For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said.


AP Africa news: