Oscar Pistorius and South African justice

Oscar Pistorius — “Blade Runner” — during 2011 World championships athletics in Daegu. Photo by Erik van Leeuwen, GNU Free Documentation License.

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympian known as Blade Runner, was found not guilty in South Africa on Thursday of premeditated murder in the shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a law graduate and model. Pistorius was convicted Friday** of unlawful homicide, a charge similar to that of manslaughter in other countries.

“I am not persuaded that a reasonable person … would have fired four shots into a toilet cubicle,” ruled Judge Thokozile Masipa Thursday, reported the Mail and Guardian. The judge said Pistorius used excessive force, was “negligent,” and “culpable homicide is a competent verdict.”

The court heard evidence that Pistorius killed Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013 by firing his gun through the locked door of his toilet. He claimed he thought she was an intruder.

The trial has enthralled the world with its global media attention, but there is far more to the case than a murder. Interpretations of the high-profile drama range from its relevance to domestic violence, race relations, politics, media attention, and disabilities. This New York Times video nicely summarizes how Pistorius fascinates the world. Some argue the case — in which a man with white skin was judged by a woman with black skin — reveals South Africa’s post-apartheid progress. For example, wrote David Smith in The Guardian: “The notion that Masipa, who began studying law during apartheid and became only the second black woman appointed to the high court, is holding 27-year-old Pistorius’s fate in her hands would once have been unthinkable.”

But the real nub of the case, suggested Ruth Hopkins in her report earlier on F&O, is how the Pistorius trial exposed class justice in the new South Africa. An excerpt of Hopkins’ April dispatch (subscription* required), Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s VIP Justice: 

Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial in South Africa, dubbed the trial of the century, has hogged the limelight since he was arrested and charged for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year. The court room in the Pretoria High Court has become the focal point of the world’s media. Pistorius’ lawyer Barry Roux stole the show when he impressed both friend and foe by tenaciously laying bare inconsistencies in witnesses’ testimonies, narrowing in on forensic evidence incorrectly secured by officers at the crime scene, and challenging the state’s version of events. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel has contested the defence’s evidence with equal tenacity. The legal spectacle that is unfolding has provided a breath-taking expose of the South African criminal justice system. This has led some commentators to conclude that the justice system itself is on trial.

Reeva Steenkamp. Photo handout released by Capacity Relations on Feb 14, 2013, via Wikipedia

The so-called OP case however, is hardly representative of the criminal justice system in this country, but rather exposes the ugly face of class justice. The trial has revealed a level of quality of the legal process that the criminal justice system is capable of producing, when a defendant with ample financial resources is on trial and the glaring spotlight of the world’s media is focused on court officials.

British honeymoon murder accused Shrien Dewani’s arrival in a privately chartered plane – paid for by the Department of Justice – flanked by medical staff to tend to his unstable mental condition, similarly sends the message that the South African courts respect and uphold human rights, most importantly the right to a fair trial.

But ordinary South African citizens are by no means guaranteed a fair trial. They battle a dysfunctional court system where bail is denied for no apparent reason, transcripts go missing, where lengthy delays put presumed innocent suspects behind bars for years, where overworked state-funded lawyers do not bother to question glaring inconsistencies, shoddy evidence and lying police officers. Inmates with medical conditions struggle to access medication, medical staff and legal relief for their conditions … read Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s VIP Justice (*log in or subscribe first.)





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** POST UPDATED Friday September 12 

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