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Oscar Pistorius and the ‘roid rage’ defense: It’s no Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card
Did “roid rage” — a state of heightened anger and aggression linked in popular culture to anabolic steroid use — play a part in Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius allegedly killing his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day?
If so, could it help in his legal defense?
According to media reports, police found anabolic steroids and other PEDs while searching the Pretoria, South Africa home of Mr. Pistorius, 26, charged with premeditated murder in the shooting death of 29-year-old model and law school graduate Reeva Steenkamp.
Mr. Pistorius, one of the world’s best-known athletes, appeared in a packed Pretoria courtroom Tuesday and denied he intended to harm Ms. Steenkamp when he reportedly fired four bullets, three of which struck her, through a closed bathroom door at his home. He said he heard a noise from the bathroom in the middle of the night and opened fire out of fear.
Prosecutors, by contrast, contend that the killing was intentional.
South Africa’s City Press reported that police are testing Mr. Pistorius’ blood for drugs and steroids to investigate a theory that the sprinter, a double amputee nicknamed “Blade Runner” for his use of carbon-fiber racing prosthetics, was in the throes of “roid rage.”
The United Kingdom’s Daily Mirror reported that “boxes and boxes” of unopened performance-enhancing drugs were found in a drawer in Mr. Pistorius’ home and that he told police he was storing the drugs for a friend.
As a legal defense, “roid rage” is no Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.
“As a general rule, ‘roid rage’ has been a terribly ineffective defense when it has been raised,” said Rick Collins, a New York-based defense attorney who specializes in PED cases. “The idea that steroid use alone is going to be accepted as the sole and exclusive cause of violent acts is unlikely to be accepted by a jury.”
The notion of drug-induced “roid rages” gained traction in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, when a series of high-profile crimes involving bodybuilders attracted media attention and a handful of researchers posited a causal relationship between steroid use and violent behavior.
In 1994, actor Ben Affleck starred in the melodramatic cable film “A Body to Die For: The Aaron Henry Story,” in which a steroid-using high school football player erupts in anger and punches his girlfriend in the face after she discovers his drug stash.
More recently, “roid rage” was cited as a possible factor when professional wrestler Chris Benoit murdered his wife and son before committing suicide in 2007 and again when U.S. Army sergeant Robert Bales allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians during a murderous rampage in last year.
However, scientific evidence for the phenomenon is inconclusive.
Experts agree that hormone levels can affect mood and behavior, including aggression. Yet while performance-enhancing drug use has been linked to a wide variety of physical side effects including acne, hair loss and liver damage, researchers have not found a definitive link — let alone a causal relationship — between drug use and increased anger or violence in the majority of steroid users.
In 2004, scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles conducted a double-blind study in which a group of men between the ages of 19 and 40 were given a 10-week course of testosterone injections, increasing the amount of the hormone in their bodies to between six and eight times its natural level.
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About the Author
Patrick Hruby is an award-winning journalist who holds degrees from Georgetown and Northwestern. He also contributes to ESPN.com and The Atlantic Online, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter (@patrick_hruby) and contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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