Pistorius, Court and his Legs
So, as promised a look at Oscar Pistorius’s court case.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether he was wearing his Prosthetic legs both during the shooting and when he knocked the door down to get in to the toilet room. But, why is this under discussion?
Firstly, an amputee would not sleep in their limbs; modern limbs are getting better and better designed and have become more and more comfortable. However, the focus of design is always on comfort in daily use and weight bearing, like walking.
Generally the systems used to ensure the prosthetic and residual limb stay in contact does not allow for a great deal of air circulation, and daily removal and cleaning will remove the build up of sweat and stop festering.
Additionally the resulting pressure on the skin can cause decubitus ulcers (pressure sores,) that are painful ulcerations on the skin.
Basically, I am not about to say there is not a single amputee in the world who wears their limb to bed, but chances are if you are going to sleep you are not wearing your prosthetic legs.
So, both legal teams accept that Oscar had been in bed that evening and had removed his prosthetic limbs. This is why it first became important whether or not his limbs were on when the gun was fired.
1: When the gun was shot.
The prosecution claims that he knew his girlfriend was in the bathroom and would therefore accuse Pistorius of murder. If he had taken the time to put on his limbs before the moment of gunshot, they would then have made the case that the time and effort it takes to put on these limbs constitute pre-meditation.
The defence claim that Pistorius has a heightened sense of fight or fight due to his life as an amputee and when he was faced with the prospect of an intruder he knew he would not be able to escape or properly defend himself. They therefore find it important to make the case that he was on his stumps when he shot through the door and was vulnerable in that moment.
If you are curious as to how long it takes to put on prosthetic legs the answer is; how long is a piece of string? It depends on so many factors, physical limitations and the kind of prosthetic being used.
Oscar Pistorius has always been somewhat quiet about his prosthetic use off the racetrack (he has admitted that he maybe somewhat shy and embarrassed of them when they are off,) and the pictures available for this part of the trial are blurry at best. However, from Mr Pistorius’s comments I would speculate that he has a Supra-condyle suspension system in his day-to-day leg (suspended from the ‘sticky out bit’ of the thigh bone.) This type of socket is usually used in such a way that no extra time taken in applying a specific liner or a vacuum. However, this means that the socket is a very tight fit and the limb needs to be properly dry to allow them to slide in.
At one point during his first testimony he explains that if he is on an international flight he has to be careful as if anything happens he would not have the ‘luxury ‘of having time to put his legs back on, implying that the time taken could have significant impact.
2: When the door was broken open with cricket bat.
The defences case being that Oscar has testified that he was still on stumps at this point, the state has an interest in attempting to prove the flaws in Mr PIstorius’s story and if they were able to prove he was wearing his limbs at any point where he claims he wasn’t they feel that would expose him as a liar and call his whole testimony into question.
So what has transpired so far?
Well, neither the state nor defence are making the case that the athlete was using his prosthetics at the time of the shooting, anymore. So, both parties think he was on stumps when he fired the gun. What the judge must still decide on is whether this supports the defence’s cases to any extent.
However, what is not agreed upon is at what point he did ‘don’ (official term for putting on a prosthetic,) his limbs. These are points that have been reviewed and cross-examined extensively in court. This has proved a long court session with multiple demonstrations from the expert witness.
I think it is important to note here something I have seen in a lot of discussions and online representations; It is only possible for an able bodied person to ‘imitate’ lower limb amputation by kneeling. And therefore we often imagine an amputee as being this stature when out of their prosthetics. However, in Oscar’s case, due to the congenital disorder, which made his amputation necessary, his stature whilst on stumps is only reduced by 12 inches compared to when wearing his prosthetics. So, representations of Mr Pistorius being at knee height are less than accurate. Of course, the expert witness was not working under this assumption; rather they postulated a height that would correspond to markings on the door in a bid to avoid any bias.
It seems a consensus that he did have his limbs onto bring Reeva down stairs.
It is unlikely he would be able to navigate the stairs while carrying Reeva without the prosthetics.
Walking on your stumps differs greatly from amputee to amputee, from the level of amputation, symmetry and how sensitive your skin is around the surgery. Early on Mr Pistorius explains that the soft tissue distribution on his legs is not the same left to right. He also stated that his balance on his stumps is such that he is not able to stand still and could easily be knocked over by his dog.
No matter your ability, it certainly does affect your capability to move at speed. The human body is very well designed and the joint that normally connects the lower leg to the ankle allows a propulsion motion for fast movements as well as proprioception, allowing for instantaneous compensation of movement if the ground is uneven. There are many ways that this portion of our bodies limits the risk of falling. Running on stumps is a much slower and unsteady process.
The next phase may raise new questions about the legs;
There is a great deal of speculation that he will not be allowed his prosthetic in jail. However, extensive research has given me little information on this other than a speculation that the first notions of this were from a newspaper that contacted the prison and asked if Oscar would be able to bring his blades. The prison responded that these would be considered a weapon and not allowed. However, as often as we may see the blade runner in his running blades, off the racetracks he uses more everyday prosthetics.
One source claims that the official line from the correctional services department is that he will be allowed to take his prosthetics with him.
Judge Masipa will have the overwhelming task of deciding upon a verdict and announcing it on September 11th 2014.
Miranda Asher, Biomedical Engineer.