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Khaya Dlanga: Will Pistorius's trial be the most infamous of them all?

Khaya Dlanga

The trial of Reeva Steenkamp's murder, with all its media scrutiny, will change Oscar Pistorius's life forever, regardless of the outcome.

The murder trial, with all its media scrutiny, will change Oscar Pistorius's life forever. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Years before the Oscar Pistorius trial, there was another famous one involving a sport star in the United States, accused of murdering his ex-wife. The accused was OJ Simpson. The judge who presided over the case was Judge Lance Ito, who became a celebrity overnight.

Media companies, the prosecution and the defence wanted the case to be broadcast on television. The court received more than 21 000 letters (it was before the wide use of the internet, after all). However, Ito said that he was not one to be swayed by public opinion.

Ito ruled in favour of allowing cameras in the courtroom after hearing media lawyers' arguments about live broadcasts of the trial – they said it would aid in educating the public and help avoid inaccurate and sensationalist reporting. "The camera pleads absolutely, 100% not guilty," said Court TV's lawyer Floyd Abrams, borrowing Simpson's famous innocent plea: "100% not guilty".

"The problem with not having a camera is that one must trust the analysis of a reporter who is telling you what occurred in the courtroom. You have to take into consideration the filtering effect of that person's own bias," said Ito in his ruling.

The TV cameras turned it into the trial of the century with theatrics from both sides. Who can forget Johnnie Cochran's famous, "If the glove does not fit, you must acquit", during his closing arguments. It was a reference to OJ struggling to fit a glove on his hand, which the prosecution claimed he wore during the murder. The glove appeared to have been too small.

When I was in high school a billion years ago, and one of two black kids in my class, our English teachers gave us a theme for the class oral. The theme for the term was "a controversial subject". Everyone did the usual: death penalty, abortion, etc. 

I decided to take on an even more heated debate. I took the OJ Simpson story, which I had followed religiously in Time magazine and Newsweek delivered at school or read about new developments in the Daily Dispatch newspaper at the school library. On any given day at 7am, you would see me right outside the library reading the newspaper.

I still remember how my oral began. I quoted a Time story on the verdict: "In the matter of the People of the State of California vs Orenthal James Simpson, case number BA097211. We, the jury, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder in violation of Penal Code section 187A, a felony, upon Nicole Brown Simpson, a human being ... "

After reciting the paragraph, I said: "White America should understand that the law of their land says, 'innocent until proven guilty'. A jury of their peers said OJ was not guilty, so they should not deem him guilty simply because they want him to be."

I had hardly finished the sentence when I got interrupted by an angry student who asked me questions, then another and then the teacher. I stood in front of the class for 40 minutes answering questions instead of articulating my oral.

These are the same kinds of emotions the Oscar Pistorius trial is going to evoke, if it is televised.  

When the OJ Simpson verdict was delivered, the court erupted in cheers and sorrow. OJ's team and the accused celebrated, while Nicole Brown's family didn't. White America was furious, while black America largely embraced OJ, even though black America always felt that he had abandoned them when he became a successful footballer and actor.

OJ's trial was covered all over the world. People who had no idea who he was learnt about him during the trial. In South Africa, CNN would have a recap of the trial every night.

The South African press followed stories about the main players in the trial. In South Africa, if cameras are allowed in court, the judge will undoubtedly became some kind of celebrity, more so than Judge Hilary Squires, who gave the verdict in the Schabir Shaik trial.

If Pistorius goes free in this trial, he will never be rid of the shadow of what happened that day, just like the shadow never left OJ Simpson, even though he was pronounced not guilty. He will never ever have the life he had before, regardless of the outcome of the trial.


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