The Oscar Pistorius trial was one of the most publicized trials in recent times. This article reviews the decision of the South African court and engages in a brief comparison between the South African and Jamaican criminal justice system.
THE FACTS OF THE CASE
On February 14, 2013 Oscar Pistorius shot and killed Reeva Steenkamp.[i] He fired four shots into his bathroom where the deceased had been locked inside. He was subsequently charged and tried for murder and three unrelated gun offences.
Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair granted bail to Pistorius after concluding that he was not a flight risk.[ii] Another significant pre-trial event was the application by several media houses seeking permission to broadcast the entire trial. In his judgement Mlambo P who heard the application noted that “The matter brings into sharp focus the interface between the functioning of the criminal justice system on the one hand and the quest by the media and press to participate in that system on the other hand”[iii]. He noted that the two rights which must be balanced were “the rights of an accused person and the prosecution to a fair trial on the one hand and the freedom of expression rights of the media as well as the open justice principle.”[iv] Mambo P ultimately concluded that the entire trial could be broadcast live via audio and that certain parts of the trial could be broadcast live via television, subject to restrictions[v] to minimise any possible impact on the trial proceedings.
The issues as framed by the trial judge was whether at the time the accused shot and killed the deceased he had the requisite intention, and if so, whether there was any premeditation.
Pistorius was found guilty of the culpable homicide of Steenkamp and reckless endangerment for discharging his firearm at a restaurant. He was acquitted of the other charges as the prosecution failed to prove them. Pistorius received a prison sentence of a maximum of five years for culpable homicide and a concurrent three-year suspended prison sentence for the reckless endangerment.
REASONS FOR THE DECISION
The judge found that the accused was a poor witness[vii], however that ipso facto could not be determinative of his guilt or innocence. The judge also noted that the evidence in respect of the murder charge was purely circumstantial. The simple explanation from the accused was that shooting the deceased was a genuine mistake, as he thought he was shooting at an intruder behind the toilet door. The judge reasoned that viewed in its totality the evidence failed to establish that the accused had the requisite intention to kill the deceased, let alone with premeditation in her words “the intention to shoot however does not necessarily include the intention to kill, Depending on the circumstances of each case an accused may be found guilty of dolus eventualis or culpable homicide.”[viii] The Judge though not finding him guilty of murder was of the view that the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force in respect of the shooting as she said “There is no doubt that when the accused fired shots through the toilet door, he acted unlawfully.”[ix] In the circumstances, she held that his conduct was negligent.
Masipa J in the Judgement noted that “The onus of proof in a criminal case is discharged by the state if the evidence establishes the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt. The corollary is that he is entitled to be acquitted … if it is reasonably possible that he might be innocent.”[x] It follows that since the state did not prove beyond reasonable doubt that the he was guilty of murder, he could not so be found. In using the reasonable man test the judge found that a reasonable person in the same circumstances as the accused would have foreseen the reasonable possibility that, if he fired four shots at the door of the toilet, whoever was behind the door, might be struck by a bullet and die and so accordingly found Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide. I would argue that on the totality of evidence presented the Learned Judge made the correct decision.
COMPARISON BETWEEN THE SOUTH AFRICAN SYSTEM AND JAMAICAN CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM.
Perhaps the most significant difference seen was the fact that there is no Jury system in South Africa as this was abolished during the period of apartheid.[xi] To compensate for the lack of a jury system the South African legal system however allows the judge to select lay assessors[xii] as she did in this case. The lay assessors sit with the judge and together they comprise the tribunal of fact. A clear benefit in using this system is that in all criminal cases there will be a written judgement, clearly setting out the findings of facts and law; this presently does not happen in jury trials in Jamaica. I am of the view that this would be of great to the Jamaican public.[xiii] Finally parts of the trial were broadcast live on Television this is something that is not done in Jamaica. I would not however suggest the implementation of such a bold step. The televising of trials, especially murder trials, would be highly sensationalized[xiv] and counterproductive to the interests of justice in Jamaica.
Despite the ruling the dust has still not settled, Masipa J has ruled that the prosecutors can appeal against the acquittal of the murder charge[xv] and many persons have voiced opinions to the effect that the sentence was too lenient. Irrespective of whether you agree with the decision of the learned trial Judge, one can certainly agree that the South African legal system acquitted itself well and stood up to intense international scrutiny. The South African Legal system as is to be expected has some differences when compared with the Jamaican legal system. I find their approach to the criminal trial particularly attractive in light of the many problems we have with our own jury system; I would commend this approach to framers of our judicial policy, but I can already foresee defence counsel et al raising strong objections to such a proposal. Whatever we decide we must remember that “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”[xvi]
Lenroy Stewart is a First Year student at the Norman Manley Law School
[i] Steenkamp was his girlfriend
[ii] Dolak and Kanani, ‘Oscar Pistorius Granted Bail in Murder Case’ (abcnews.go.com/ 2014) <http://abcnews.go.com/International/oscar-pistorius-granted-bail-murder-case/story?id=18563714> accessed 25/12/2014; The judge attached stringent bail conditions which included relinquishing his firearms, passports, daily police reports and being confined to the Pretoria area
[iii] Multichoice (Proprietary) Limited and Others v National Prosecuting Authority and Another, In Re; S v Pistorius, In Re; Media 24 Limited and Others v Director of Public Prosecutions North Gauteng and Others  2 ALL SA 446 (GPPHC)
[v] The trial judge retained a discretion to order that parts of the trial not be broadcast live
[vi] The Judge noted that a possible reason for some of the witnesses getting their facts wrong was the fact that this case attracted such a great amount of media attention. Several witnesses admitted to following the news relating to the events of 14 February 2013.
[vii] During evidence in chief he seemed composed and logical, while giving his version under cross-examination he lost his composure.
[viii] S v Pistorius (CC113/2013)  ZAGPPHC 793
[ix] Op cit
[x] Op cit
[xi] Susannah Cullinane, Nick Thompson and Kelly Phelps, ‘Oscar Pistorius trial: 9 things to know’ (cnn.com/ 2013) <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/02/22/world/africa/pistorius-legal-q-and-a/index.html> accessed 25/12/2014
[xii] Lay assesors are usually persons skilled in the law such as retired judges , retired lawyers or law professors
[xiii] Or at least helpful to law students
[xiv] The Mannat and Tivoli commissions come readily to mind
[xvi] R v Sussex Justices, Ex parte McCarthy ( 1 KB 256