News / Africa

S. Africa’s Criminal Legal System on Trial With Pistorius

Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Aug. 8, 2014.
Oscar Pistorius leaves the high court in Pretoria, South Africa, Aug. 8, 2014.

The end is near for the murder trial of South African running star Oscar Pistorius. The legal spectacle has provided a snapshot of the South African criminal justice system. On one hand, it may have impressed onlookers with tenacious lawyers and gritty debate, not to mention a no-nonsense woman judge. It is not clear, however, if the Oscar Pistorius trial is a true representation of the South African justice system.

South Africa’s policing and criminal justice system has been under worldwide scrutiny for the past six months as the televised murder trial of the Olympic athlete and double amputee unfolded in a Pretoria courtroom.
He is accused of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day - February 14, 2013. He maintains he shot her in self-defense, thinking Steenkamp was an intruder in his home.
The trial has become a test case of the legal system’s ability to deliver justice in a country where inequality persists 20 years after the end of apartheid.

Money, influence
Robyn Leslie, researcher for the Wits Justice Project in Johannesburg, said the Pistorius trial is an anomaly, not the norm.
“He is definitely getting the VIP treatment without a doubt… We hear [about] terrible legal representation, the accused end up in jail based on flimsy or non-existent evidence that isn’t sufficiently challenged in court, days upon days of remands for no reason… [It] is definitely not the situation most people face,” said Leslie.

The Pistorius trial is indicative of what money can buy, according to Leslie.
The trial has been peppered with testimonies from ballistic and forensic experts dissecting bullet trajectories and blood spatters and reenactments of the night Pistorius shot his girlfriend.
And Pistorius has been free on bail for 18 months.
This is not the case for more impoverished defendants. Legal Aid South Africa reports there are 10,000 people languishing in jails who cannot afford to pay the smallest bail.  

Constitutional rights

Natalie Jaynes, program manager for the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, said getting access to basic constitutional rights works only for the educated and the elite.  
“We fought so long and hard to have a fairly robust legal framework that provides us with good access to justice provisions for the poorest of the poor. The extent to which people are able to actually leverage that and access that, depends on so many external variables and so it still feels so unfairly biased in favor of people who are privileged,” said Jaynes.

The Wits Justice project says that 45,000 people -- a third of the prison population -- are subject to unreasonable delays during their trials. A Johannesburg prosecutor, who asked not to be named, told VOA trials often are delayed unnecessarily.
“In the Pistorius trial, everything was like made to be perfect… Witnesses were on time, the judge was on time.  It’s not happening in our case -- we often start at 10.30 in the morning, sometimes later.  We also have trouble with witnesses… The witnesses are scared so they don’t want to come to court.”

Other shortcomings highlighted during this trial, however, have nothing to do with the privilege of fame and fortune.
Jayne noted the shoddy work of police investigators who mishandled evidence at the crime scene.
“It has actually laid bare some of the very deep fissures within the criminal justice system.  If you look back to the very early phases of the investigation, the issues around the slip-ups of the police investigation, and really reflecting an absolute sloppiness there in that regard,” she said.

Final verdict

Justice groups, though, welcome the scrutiny. Leslie of the Wits’ Justice Project said that while the Pistorius trial will not necessarily improve flaws in the justice system, it is helping to educate a large number of South Africans about their legal rights.

“People are learning more about what the criminal procedure is… they are learning about bail, the big outcry. Was it legal to allow Pistorius bail? [It] means there is a basic understanding of the process just from that debate, that I think has been a really positive side to it,” said Leslie.

A final verdict on the justice system may take time. Meanwhile, a verdict in the Pistorius case will be delivered on September 11 by Judge Thokozile Masipa -- the second black woman to be appointed a high court judge in post-apartheid South Africa.


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