Oscar Pistorius and a Case of Mistaken Assumptions

Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius stands during his bail hearing at the magistrate court in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, F
Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius stands during his bail hearing at the magistrate court in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. The lead investigator in the murder case against Pistorius faces attempted murder charges himself over a 2011 shooting, police said Thursday in another potentially damaging blow to the prosecution. Prosecutors said they were unaware of the charges against veteran detective Hilton Botha when they put him on the stand in court to explain why Pistorius should not be given bail in the Valentine's Day shooting death of his girlfriend. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

When a high-profile athlete commits an act of tragic violence, thoughts quickly turn to the possibility that steroid-induced rage was the cause. Such was the kneejerk assumption of media pundits regarding the double murder and suicide of former WWE wrestler Chris Benoit, and many still believe it, notwithstanding evidence of massive alcohol consumption and the degenerative brain condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (which can cause confusion, impaired judgment, paranoia, poor impulse control, aggression, depression, memory loss and dementia). In the murder case against "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius for the death of law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp, the "roid rage" assumption received initial validation by reports that "boxes and boxes" of anabolic steroids and hypodermic syringes were found in his bedroom at the scene of the crime.

Identifying a simple, solitary cause for incomprehensible brutality may be both easier for journalists to report and more comforting for the public to accept than that the roots of such behavior lie in the human heart. But it doesn't make it true. Research suggests an association between steroids and aggression, but that doesn't mean a cause and effect relationship exists. The notion that anabolic steroid use typically induces uncontrollable fits of rage is a myth. Like many myths, it has a kernel of truth at its core but has been distorted into something having little to do with fact. The vast, overwhelming majority of anabolic steroid users aren't committing murder and mayhem. Studies administering moderate dosages of the substances have resulted in no discernible psychiatric problems. While in a very small percentage of possibly "predisposed" individuals, steroids can lead to varying psychiatric symptoms, the appearance of these symptoms is generally correlated to dosage (<1,000 mg. per week) and may also be rooted in previous mental illness or abuse of other drugs. While it's convenient to assume simple explanations for unfathomable conduct, the truth is that human behavior is extremely complicated and rarely, if ever, can it be simplified down to a single causal factor.

Just when some talking heads were laying out the game plan for a steroid-induced diminished capacity defense, along comes the revelation that the report about finding steroids was false. After allegations by defense lawyer Barry Roux that the items found were an "herbal remedy" and "not a steroid" and "not a banned substance," the prosecutor has backtracked and admitted the police were wrong in their initial reports. While nobody has yet addressed the questions of what these herbal remedies actually are or why hypodermic syringes would be present with them, the steroid connection to the case is, for the moment, moot. As to why the police would confuse them with testosterone, the error might be based on the packaging of the products. Certain members of the dietary supplement industry have used steroid-like labeling and packaging to market muscle-building herbal products to weight-lifting enthusiasts. Such may indeed be the case here, and unless the prosecution does yet another reversal on the steroid issue we're left with a mistaken assumption on the part of police investigators.

The mistaken assumptions by pundits and police, however, may be easier to swallow than what may likely be the actual defense in this case: that Pistorius mistakenly assumed that the person in the bathroom was an intruder and not his model girlfriend. The reasonableness and ultimate success of that defense will hinge on many factors, but unless a confirmed connection to anabolic steroids appears (e.g., a blood or urine test showing the presence of synthetic steroid metabolites or an elevated testosterone ratio in his body), steroids won't be one of them.