from Africa in Transition

Oscar Pistorius and South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeals

December 3, 2015

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeals has overturned a lower court verdict and convicted Oscar Pistorius of murder. The celebrated para-Olympian was initially found guilty of manslaughter in the killing of his live-in girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in 2012. Using a high-powered weapon, he fired four shots through a bathroom door, killing Steenkamp. He claimed he thought there was an intruder and that he felt his life was threatened.

The minimum sentence for murder is fifteen years, though judges have some discretion in sentencing. Pistorius who after being released from prison has been under house arrest for the lessor charge must now return to prison. Pistorius is twenty-nine years of age; he could be forty-four when his sentence ends. South African media expects that his athletic career is over. The presiding judge, Eric Leach, characterized Pistorius’s downfall as “a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions.” Few will disagree.

South Africa has no jury system. Trials at all levels are by judge or a panel of judges. The prosecution as well as the defense can appeal a verdict from a lower court to a higher one. The Supreme Court of Appeals is the highest court dealing with criminal matters. Pistorius could appeal to the Constitutional Court, but only in the unlikely event that he could demonstrate that his constitutional rights have been violated, and that is unlikely.

There are twenty-four judges on the Supreme Court of Appeals. The Pistorius case was reviewed by a panel of five, and their verdict was unanimous. The five judges were multiracial and included one woman; the presiding judge is white. The lower court judge who convicted Pistorius of manslaughter, Judge Thokorzile Mosipa, is black. The Supreme Court ruled that she did not correctly apply the legal principle of “dolus eventualis,” whether Pistorius knew that death would be a likely result of his actions. In his statement announcing the verdict, Judge Leach paid due respect to Judge Mosipa: “The trial judge conducted the hearing with dignity and competence that is a credit to the judiciary of this country. The fact the appeal has succeeded is not to be seen as a slight on the trial judge.”

The Pistorius case has periodically roiled South Africa since 2012. Now, it appears to be over. For many South Africans, the case became an emblem of many of the country’s social problems: high levels of domestic violence, especially violence against women; the ubiquitous presence of fire-arms; and the frequency of home invasions that often result in murder. Women’s groups argued that Pistorius’s initial sentence on the basis of manslaughter meant that he, literally, “got away with murder.” South African media is welcoming the Supreme Court’s ruling as serving justice and as a reaffirmation that no one is above the law. Beyond its tragic and soap opera dimensions, the Pistorius case is a reaffirmation of the independence of the South African judiciary and the primacy of the rule of law.

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