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Legal debate begins today

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa's prosecutors will begin explaining today why they accuse Olympian Oscar Pistorius of committing murder in the Valentine's Day shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Pistorius, 26, hasn't entered a plea. His family strongly denies the double-amputee runner committed murder, but have not denied outright that Pistorius shot Steenkamp, 29, a model and law school graduate who was featured in a South African reality television show.

Here are some facts about the case that has shaken a nation that idolized the runner:

The model girlfriend

Steenkamp was a celebrity in South Africa, known for domestic and international commercials. She was named one of the world's 100 sexiest women for two years running by FHM magazine. She met Pistorius in November at a race track near Johannesburg.

The killing

In the predawn Feb. 14, police officers arrived at Pistorius' home in a gated community in the suburbs of Pretoria. Police said they found paramedics trying to resuscitate Steenkamp, lying in a pool of blood. Police say officers found a 9 mm pistol and arrested Pistorius, who they say was the only other person in the home at the time of the shooting. Pistorius underwent DNA testing and had samples of his blood collected. Police declined to give information about what an autopsy revealed. They said Steenkamp was shot multiple times. Police have not offered a motive. Pistorius' uncle Arnold said that "the state's own case, including its own forensic evidence, strongly refutes any possibility of a premeditated murder or murder as such."

A troubled past

In February 2009, Pistorius crashed a speedboat on South Africa's Vaal River, breaking his nose, jaw and several ribs and damaging an eye socket. Witnesses said he had been drinking, and officers found alcoholic beverages in the wreckage, though they did not do blood tests. In November Pistorius reportedly was involved in an altercation, over a woman, with a coal mining millionaire. The South African Police Service's Hawks investigative unit became involved before the two settled the matter. Pistorius had a fondness for guns and once tweeted about searching his house with a pistol, looking for an intruder.

The bail hearing

The bail hearing today and Wednesday in Pretoria will see prosecutors offer Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair evidence to bolster their arguments that Pistorius should be denied bail. Evidence likely will include specific details about the killing and why they believe he killed Steenkamp. Pistorius likely will offer a plea. Prosecutors plan to pursue a premeditated murder charge. Nair will hear the prosecution and the defense, then issue a bail ruling. If Pistorius is held without bail until trial, he will be transferred from the police station he's being held in to prison, likely in Pretoria.

South African justice

South Africa has a court system that takes root in Roman-Dutch law. Those appearing in criminal trials do not have the option of a jury trial. Instead, a single judge will hear the entire case then rule on guilt or innocence. The judge can be assisted by two advisers who offer assistance in looking at the more technical aspects of the evidence. If found guilty, a person can appeal the ruling or the sentence. A premeditated murder charge carries a minimum of life in prison. There is no death penalty in South Africa.

Reaction to the case

The day of the shooting, companies quickly removed billboards and advertising featuring Pistorius. One pulled an ad for Nike that showed Pistorius starting to sprint, with the caption: "I am the bullet in the chamber." Monday, Oakley, an eyewear maker, suspended its contract with Pistorius. Nike said it has no plans to use him in future ads.

Legal debate begins today 02/18/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 10:50pm]
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