The “Blade Runner” trial has captivated the globe. Sports fans worldwide and of course virtually everyone in South Africa wonder how and why Oscar Pistorius, the paralympic gold-medalist, could have shot and killed his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day last year.
A year after Steenkamp’s death, the truth is trickling out through a courtroom. Ballistic and postmortem evidence reveal that Steenkamp was locked in the bathroom when Pistorius began firing through the door. She was shot first in the leg, and allegedly began screaming, but Pistorius kept firing. For his part, Pistorius has said he believed Steenkamp was an intruder in his up-market home in Pretoria.
The state is attempting to prove that Steenkamp’s death was premeditated, to qualify it as murder. If successful, Pistorius will face 25 years in prison. If the state fails, Pistorius will face a conviction of culpable homicide, better known as a term for manslaughter. The punishment for manslaughter is either a fine or a 15-year prison sentence. In the South African judicial system, Pistorius’ case will be decided by one person: Judge Thokozile Masipa.
The jury system ended in 1969 in South Africa, under the apartheid regime. Since then, criminal cases have been argued by advocates and deliberated by a judge. The South African judge, like the American judge, enters the trial with no prior knowledge of the case and acts as a neutral party in deciding the fate of the people involved.
If the Pistorius case was tried in American courts, he would have to plead his case before the jury, and await their judgment. If Pistorius was in a state which had the death penalty, the jury would also be involved in his sentencing. In the South African system, it may take only one person to decide another’s fate, but the trial, which was scheduled to last three weeks, could easily last two years, according to Llewellyn Curlewis, president of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces of South Africa.
Masipa is South Africa’s second black female judge. Her previous verdicts include giving a policeman a life-sentence for killing his wife, and sentencing a serial rapist to 252 years in prison.
Despite Pistorius’ case not being handled by a jury, challenges to the court’s ability to serve justice have been met with assurance. South African lawyer Jay Surju said, “Our judges are trained to focus on the evidence in court, not on what the media is reporting. The judge is there to dispense justice, and he must do his job clinically. Any judgement he gives can be challenged in a higher court.”
The evidence has made it clear that Pistorius shot Steenkamp, all that the verdict will decide is the manner in which he shot her – through mistaken identity or cold blood.