Lessons about justice from the trial of Oscar Pistorius

I was one of those lucky enough to be in the Olympic stadium on 8 September last year to watch Oscar Pistorius win his emotional gold medal in the 400m. Well, it wasn’t entirely luck, I had applied for tickets for that session precisely because I wanted to see him race. It was an incredibly stirring event and one that banished memories of his unseemly tantrum the week before, which I’d also been there to see.

Just as it was not a surprise that the way in which Pistorius won, and accepted, this gold medal provided redemption, it should not have been a surprise that our hero wasn’t, in fact, the icon we held him to be.  All the same, finding out someone could be ruthless and ungracious does not mean it is not shocking to learn he’s shot and killed his girlfriend.

And despite all the details about loud arguments, bloody cricket bats, whether or not the athlete took time to put on his prosthetics and where the victim, Reeva Steenkamp, was sitting when she was shot, this is all we really know.  It is, I would suggest, all we really should know, given the alleged crime took place less than a week ago and hasn’t yet even come to trial.

As the Twittersphere and rolling news whip themselves up into a frenzy of speculation, claims and counter claims are increasingly masquerading as facts.  The case, understandably, is being compared to that of OJ Simpson in 1994.  But if Simpson’s trial was a circus, today’s proliferation of social media renders Pistorius’ more like a deranged bacchanal in which the participants try to outdo each other by sharing ever more salacious details that confirm their own already-decided verdict on his guilt or innocence.

It differs from Simpson’s trial in another key respect, there will be no jury.  This, apparently, is why both the South African and international media have been able to unearth stories proving Pistorius’ unhealthy relationship with guns and previous violent behaviour.  Even though South Africa has similar contempt laws to ours, they are rarely enforced because the judges who deliver verdicts are considered above influence.

South Africa abolished its jury system in 1969 because of racial politics.  Only white people could be jurors and so many felt that black defendants had no hope of getting a fair trial.  It is surely debatable as to whether Pistorius can get a fair trial, even if the verdict comes from an unswayable judge who has to provide reasons for his decision.  It must also be possible that some of this sensational coverage might be straying dangerously close to libel.

Before we get all high and mighty about the wonders of the jury system, let’s remember many people think the OJ Simpson jury got it wrong and our contempt laws are under strain from the challenges posed by social media.  Between 1998 and 2005, the Court of Appeal ordered only four investigations into ‘juror misbehaviour’, but from 2006 to the middle of last year ‘at least 27 investigations’ were ordered. 

The internet makes it all too easy for overenthusiastic jurors to do a little background research in between court sessions.  It is equally challenging to prevent prejudicial information being published on the web.  A consultation on proposals to reform our contempt laws has suggested there could be a new oath not to undertake research and tougher penalties for jurors who go a little ‘off piste’.

However, none of this will help without better education about the justice system. Only this week, the jury at the trial of Vicky Pryce was dismissed after asking the judge ten specific questions about the case, including the definition of ‘reasonable doubt’ and whether a jurors could ‘come to a verdict based on a reason that was not presented in court and has no facts or evidence to support it either from the prosecution or defence’. for failing to reach a verdict.  The judge concluded they were ‘highly unlikely’ to reach a verdict.

If some commentators found it exasperating that jurors could be so baffled by the trial process, I can only wonder that this doesn’t happen more often.  Maybe it does, we have no way of knowing what goes on behind the closed doors of jury deliberation and whether jurors have done their job properly, even if we believe most of them do. 

Part of the fascination we have with high profile cases overseas, be it OJ Simpson, Amanda Knox or Oscar Pistorius, is, I think, as much about another country’s different way of dispensing justice as it is interest in the human story.  We were baffled by the televised courtroom and superstar lawyers in Los Angeles, confounded by the inconclusiveness of Italian justice and now puzzled by the workings of a South African system that seems almost to sanction trial by media.

My fascination is compounded by my long affection for South Africa, which I first visited in 1976 when I was only four years old.  It is a savagely beautiful country and I have always been struck by the warmth of its people despite its difficult past and troubled present.  These same people will no doubt feel somewhat uncomfortable at this most recent spotlight being thrown on their country and the macho gun culture and endemic violence against women it has thrown into sharp relief. 

Despite fairly strong gun laws, 6 million people, 12 per cent of the population, own a gun and anyone who can locks themselves away in gated communities.  On average a woman is raped every four minutes and one is killed every eight hours by a partner or relative.  In a country where the poor are unlikely to be able to afford a lawyer and spend about two years in custody before coming to trial, it is perhaps the probable relative swiftness of Pistorius’ trial, and his highly paid lawyers, that will be the most unusual aspect of this case.

Oscar Pistorius is already being seen as an analogy for a country that overcame tragedy, promised much and then fell gracelessly off its pedestal.  His trial, and its outcome, will dictate whether or not he can redeem himself again.  It may also have a tiny part to play in whether his country can also start to redeem itself.  

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