The pros and cons of Oscar
It is probably inappropriate to find benefits in a tragic situation. So it is with a measure of caution that we eke something positive out of Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial and appeal.
The benefit that South Africa derived from the televised trial of Pistorius, who killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013, was that it exposed us to the workings of the criminal justice system. During the trial, we all became legal experts. By the time Judge Thokozile Masipa handed down her judgment, we all believed ourselves to be in a position to critique her with insight.
It was probably with this in mind that the Supreme Court of Appeal took a sympathetic line on Masipa this week, despite delivering a damning indictment of her judgment. After stripping it apart, the judges, through Judge Eric Leach, noted that the public glare under which the case was held “must have added to the inherently heavy rigors that are brought to bear upon trial courts in conducting lengthy and complicated trials”.
“The fact that this court has determined that certain mistakes were made should not be seen as an adverse comment upon her competence and ability. The fact is that different judges reach different conclusions and, in the light of an appeal structure, those of the appellate court prevail. But the fact that the appeal has succeeded is not to be regarded as a slight upon the trial judge,” said Leach.
We agree and disagree with the judges. It is true that Masipa conducted the trial with a degree of calmness and authority that made South Africans proud that the world could see the quality of our judiciary and the calibre of our jurists. But the credit that she had earned in our judicial system in the eyes of citizens and the rest of the world was wiped out by her inexplicable judgment. It significantly damaged public confidence in the system. This week’s comprehensive judgment restored that confidence. It showed that the system works and that law – not money and fame – is what matters.
Here’s where we differ further with the judges. The argument that “different judges reach different conclusions” should not be an excuse for incompetence, the misapplication of law and ignoring important facts. Masipa erred terribly and her competence will inescapably be the subject of public scrutiny for the foreseeable future.