Demystifying Oscar trial

2014-03-07 22:33
Oscar Pistorius appears in the dock on the fifth day of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court. (Theana Breugem, Foto24)

Oscar Pistorius appears in the dock on the fifth day of his trial at the North Gauteng High Court. (Theana Breugem, Foto24)

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Pretoria - The first week of the Oscar Pistorius trial has come and gone, and we are wiser for it.

The defendant has pleaded not guilty to four charges, one of murder and three of improperly handling a firearm, and has in his submission to court dealt with the State’s case against him from the outset. We know what the team of defence lawyers will argue happened that night.

It took a while, but the State eventually showed its hand too. It will, in arguing for premeditation to the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year, call on neighbours who overheard the commotion.

Some have testified already.

It will also argue that the Pistorius version of what happened that morning is not believable, and will seek to paint a picture of a flawed character, driven by paranoia to surround himself with weapons, and aggression to lash out and kill his girlfriend.

But there has been more to the trial than a tragic case of domestic violence, or terrible case of mistaken identity.

In a way, it is the country itself that is on trial, and the attitudes we hold to, and against each other. These are buried in witness testimonies, statements and the defence explanation for what happened that night.

According to Pistorius, he shot into the closed toilet at what he thought was an intruder. This, inside a fortified estate that is patrolled by five security guards at all times.

It was the infamous American criminal lawyer Alan Dershowitz who said the words this week. In a segment on Piers Morgan’s doomed CNN show, he called South Africa a failed state and the trial racist. Why?

“South Africa is a lawless country. It is a country with deep, deep racial divisions and problems we wish had disappeared because we all love Mandela,” Dershowitz said.

“Now whether this judge is willing to give credence to the fact that a white person living in a white area would be in fear for his life, hearing somebody crawling through his bathroom window, fearing black intruders… whether or not this judge is willing to find that, I don’t know. But that’s what this case will come down to. It’s racial, that’s factual - it’s got nothing to do with the law,” he said.

Dershowitz’s horribly flawed analysis aside, the judicial system is on trial too.

Dispelling some myths

The Gauteng judge president Dunstan Mlambo noted that in his judgement that opened up the trial to the broadcast media.

He said that there was a perception that the rich and famous got off lightly while the system comes down heavily on the poor. Opening up the courtroom to the television cameras could help dispel those myths.

And how some myths are being dispelled! Many South Africans are completely alien to the workings of the judiciary, and have found it surprising and unpleasant that the defence can mount a strong counterattack, even in a case when the facts are not disputed.

Notice the hurt reactions of people who watched the lead Advocate Barry Roux hammer State witnesses again and again, reducing some of them to tears. But that is Pistorius’s right that he enjoys under a system that guarantees him a fair trial.

But we already know that the weakness of the justice system is not the courts. We have some of the finest jurists and lawyers in the world, and two of them, Roux and State prosecutor Gerrie Nel, are bouting against each other inside Courtroom GD.

It is often the South African Police Service that fails by botching the investigation, or “losing” it before it can be debated in court.

The former police detective Hilton Botha was a shimmering example of that failure at the bail hearing a year ago.


We have learnt that there is a price to pay for being a witness in court. One had her photo broadcast by a TV channel in spite of a court order barring exactly that, and another had his phone number read out by the defence advocate - resulting in an avalanche of calls and messages, some of them threatening. (Again, it is completely against the law to interfere with witnesses!)

Being a witness also means having your memory, intentions and integrity closely questioned by aggressive lawyers. In the full face of the media, you might come across as a fool or a liar, for simply doing your civic duty.

Who on earth would want to testify in such circumstances? Will this case make it more or less likely that people will step forward in future?

It tells us something about ourselves too, that Pistorius could set off a firearm inside a bustling restaurant in Melrose Arch, Johannesburg’s favourite hangout for the ostentatiously moneyed, and all that would happen is shocked silence, and then nothing. Do we not have occasion to ask if one must reasonably assume that even the nicest boy (which is what many of Pistorius’s fans call him) might set off a shot in a public area?

Outside the courtroom, the media has set up a camp with tents bearing the names of organisation from every corner of the world.

They want Pistorius details in Atlanta, Sydney, London and Paris.

Foreign media

If there ever was a chance that this case would not be blown up to proportions it couldn’t deserve, the arrival of the foreign media changed all of that. With them have come tactics that are unheard of in South Africa - buying interviews for exorbitant fees, chasing after court witnesses in spite of strong injunctions against such a practice.

Not that the South African press is so holy. Take a look at some of the headlines from this past week. Court sagas and the tabloid press don’t often go together and the most serious details have been given the broadsheet treatment.

“Oscar skree soos ‘n meisie”, one tabloid shrieked. (Should it matter that the screams heard by the neighbour could either sink or save his life? Should we be more serious about such things?)

In the middle of all this, we must find a story to tell South Africa.

People will complain that the focus should be on the upcoming elections, or the Marikana massacre, or e-tolling, or the unrelenting human misery where the poor live.

Such arguments are behind us now.

Still, the most dangerous people are the journalists who don’t take time to reflect on what exactly we are doing in Pretoria.

Because no matter what happens to Pistorius, he and the rest of us have been changed.

He will be tainted with this incident for life, and for the rest of us, justice has become something of a spectator sport.

Read more on:    gerrie nel  |  reeva steenkamp  |  oscar pistorius  |  barry roux  |  crime  |  pistorius trial

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