The pros and cons of Os­car

CityPress - - Voices -

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.

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