Was Justice Served In Pistorius Case?

Here’s a question for you. What is a life worth? In the South African justice system, if you are white, famous and rich, the answer is ten months.

That’s the likely jail time that Oscar Pistorius will serve for shooting his girlfriend dead on Valentine’s Day.

Of course the judge in the case sentenced him to five years imprisonment for culpable homicide. But nobody expects, nor do they believe, he will serve anything like that length of time.

He should.

In fact, the prosecution wanted him jailed for at least ten years.

But that didn’t happen. Let’s be realistic. That was never going to happen.

It was never going to happen from the moment the judge gave Pistorius bail after convicting him. But she had to be careful. The eyes of the world and all of South Africa were fixed on this case. The judge knew it. But equally, allowing him to serve only home detention, a ludicrous suggestion made in the pre-sentence hearing, was never going to happen either. The judge knew that as well. She said as much when delivering her decision.

A non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to the community, the judge said. But a long prison sentence was not appropriate either because it lacked the element of mercy.

Let’s just briefly dwell on the concept of mercy.

For example, how much mercy did Pistorius show, when he repeatedly fired bullets at a cowering Reeva Steenkamp, through the wooden door of a bathroom? He claims it was a case of mistaken identity. He can claim what he likes. In the court of public opinion, no one believes him.

The judge went to great lengths to reassure everyone that Pistorius, a wealthy and influential white man would never have been able to secure preferential treatment despite the equality before the law provision in the 1996 South African post apartheid constitution. The judge said it would be a sad day for South Africa if an impression were created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and one law for the rich and famous.

But no one believed the judge when she said that.

Ordinary South Africans don’t believe it. They said as much when they were asked to give their opinion on the sentencing. It shows our society hasn’t changed, one man said. If Pistorius were black, instead of white, he would never have received such a light sentence. But that’s how things are in South Africa. Another man said why are certain offenders more equal than others before the law? Then he added this telling comment about the Pistorius behavior during the trial when he cried and dry retched. He screams like a girl, cries like a baby but shoots like a soldier.

The Pistorius legal team fully expects their client will move to home detention after serving between ten and 20 months of his sentence. The prosecution has two weeks to decide if there will be an appeal.

The ruling African National Congress Women’s League, which is leading political efforts to tackle domestic violence head on, wants the State to appeal.

The Steenkamp family was shocked that Pistorius avoided a murder conviction.

Reeva’s mother, June Steenkamp says she is certain her daughter was planning to leave Pistorius the very night she was killed. She says Reeva’s bags were packed. June Steenkamp says Reeva was scared to have a sexual relationship with Pistorius because he was controlling and manipulative.

She described Pistorius as “arrogant”, “moody”, “volatile” and “combustible”, saying he was a “trigger-happy” gun lover who was “possessive” of her daughter.

June Steenkamp went on to say it was Reeva’s bad luck that she met Oscar Pistorius, because sooner or later he would have killed someone.

But the family also knows whatever happens in the future, nothing is going to bring back a much-loved daughter.

And for all the noble sentiments about equality before the law and no such thing as a separate law for the rich and influential, Pistorius is serving his sentence far away from the general prison population. He is housed in a single jail cell in the prison hospital. He is getting the kind of treatment that other disabled prisoners at the same jail can only dream about.

Some time ago I wrote of my concern asking the question: Are there two legal systems in the world we live in, one for the rich and famous and the other for everyone else? I guess I’ve answered my own question, as if it ever needed answering.

Is This Right?

Some events unfolding in Pretoria South Africa are making me feel decidedly uneasy.

I’m talking about the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius. The disabled athlete called the blade runner. A man, who successfully brokered his disability into a career worth millions of dollars and good on him for doing so.

But this isn’t a story about Oscar Pistorius, the athlete. It’s about Oscar Pistorius, the killer. He killed his beautiful and, from all reports, extremely talented girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. It was violent and brutal. He aimed and fired his gun at her not once but four times. Reeva died on the bathroom floor at the town house they shared. In his defence, Oscar said he didn’t know his girlfriend was in the bathroom. It was a tragic case of mistaken identity.

The fact that he did this isn’t in dispute. What is in dispute and what his trial was about had to do with answering the question: Did he intend to kill her? Did he calculatingly and cold bloodedly plan her murder? Or was it spur of the moment negligence brought on by the mistaken belief that an intruder entered their home and was planning to commit a violent crime against them?

A single judge and no jury deliberated on these questions and in the last 48 hours she (the judge) delivered her verdict. Not guilty of murder but guilty of the lesser charge of culpable homicide. Not everyone thinks the judge got it right especially people living in South Africa.

There are frightening similarities between this case and another rich and famous athlete called O. J. Simpson. He was charged with murdering not one but two people: his wife and a waiter who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simpson, like Pistorius, had a nickname. Everyone called him the Juice. His backstory was strikingly similar, overcoming adversity to triumph as a champion in his chosen field although Simpson was not disabled. And just like Oscar Pistorius, O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder and not everyone believes justice was done.

Why am I uneasy? Because I am worried there might be two kinds of justice operating in Pretoria and maybe in other places as well. One kind of justice, that deals exclusively with the rich and famous and the other for everyone else. I am not saying it is definitely the case in Oscar’s case. It depends on what kind of sentence he gets. But already there is talk that he might not even serve any jail time. That he might be given a suspended sentence.

According to South African law, culpable homicide carries a maximum of 15 years imprisonment with no minimum. He could get the maximum or nothing at all. And the nothing at all scenario, might be starting to take shape. Pistorius did not go into custody, following his manslaughter conviction, which is normally the case. In his case, bail was extended. On the balance of probabilities, that action would appear to suggest letting him go free rather than locking him up was at the forefront of the judge’s mind.

It was never suggested and certainly not by me that Oscar Pistorius shouldn’t be universally respected for his sporting feats and his established career off the field as a spokesperson and public figure. Or that more than just about any other athlete who has ever lived — he is a symbol of the indomitable human spirit, a man who ignored his physical disability to reach the highest echelon of sporting achievement, the Olympics.

But a young woman is dead. A young woman, who wanted to live and had everything to live for.  A young woman, who left behind a broken hearted family and friends who can’t understand how and why she died. A young woman, who can’t speak but even in death, has the right to expect justice to speak for her. If Oscar Pistorius walks away from this and is allowed to continue his life as if nothing happened then justice has failed not just Reeva but all of us.