‘Celebrity’ Pistorius gets an unfair advantage


A 24-hour channel, international media devoted to every detail and a justice system bent on putting its best foot forward: there isn't much missing in the murder trial of athletic star Oscar Pistorius. 

Pistorius is charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a model and equally glamorous figure.

But his trial, which has grabbed the world's attention, takes place against a backdrop in South Africa where about 45 000 people, or a third of the country's prison population, are in prison waiting for their trial to be concluded. The poorest in the country are systematically disadvantaged by our legal system and conviction rates for femicide are dramatically low thanks in part to a badly-trained detective force. 

"This is such a big profile case all the stop are being pulled out to show the wonders of the South African justice system," said gender expert and researcher Lisa Vetten. "But one would like to see the wonders of the justice system applied to all those other cases."

The Pistorius trial, which appeared to have been fast-tracked through the system, will face none of these challenges that other murders featuring people who are not celebrities. 

"A year is quite quick from the date of the murder to the date of the trial, if you consider most simple matters like drunken driving are postponed to up till a year ahead just for the alcohol blood analysis," said Chris van der Maas, a criminal lawyer with 23 years of experience.

Publicity puts pressure on NPA
South Africa's justice system is also on trial this month. International media have been covering the events in detail ahead of the trial, and have descended on Pretoria where the trial will be held, installing camera cables and setting up shop for the next few weeks. The trial has captured the world's attention on a level only comparable with the murder trial of OJ Simpson 19 years ago. 

The publicity has put the pressure on the National Prosecuting Authority to do its best. Accordingly the original police officer leading the investigation, Hilton Botha, was removed after it was revealed he faced earlier charges for attempted murder and he admitted to compromising the crime scene. He was replaced with the country's most senior detective, Lieutenant General Vineshkumar Moonoo.

"It is unlikely such a senior office would be involved in the murder of woman from an informal settlement," said Vetten. 

Pistorius too will know his fate far faster than any other South African political prisoner.

As many as 40% of awaiting-trial prisoners will eventually be acquitted, according to a 2012 report "Guilty or Not But Behind Bars Anyway", compiled by the Wits Justice Project and the Helen Suzman Foundation. "This means that a staggering number of innocent people are being deprived of their freedom," the report said.

'Preferential treatment'
One example is Jacob Tsiane (43), a father of two and a suspect in a Pretoria hijacking, who has been awaiting trial in Pretoria Central prison for seven years. 

Pistorius, on the other hand was charged with premeditated murder and violation of the Firearms Control Act on August 19 2013 and his trial begins on March 3, just a little over a year after he allegedly shot Steenkamp on February 14 2013.

"We've thrown a lot of resources at this because it's in the public eye and we've seen it has received preferential treatment," said Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi​, project co-ordinator for the Wits Justice Project. "The system I think has had to put its best foot forward. It would be good to have this level of interest in everyday matters – and that would be true for the media as well."

The fact that a third of South Africa's prison population were in remand detention and awaiting trial – for years in many instances – was unconstitutional, said Erfani-Ghadimi.

"You're entitled to a speedy trial. We have too many people waiting for their trial to be sentenced or not."

What about violence against women?
The same could be said for the issues of violence against women, which South Africa's justice system has done little to improve by way of prosecutions. Between 1999 and 2009 there has been little increase in the successful prosecutions of intimate femicide, or the murder of a woman by her partner, according to a 2012 report by the South African Medical Research Council. And there were fewer successful prosecutions where women were murdered by people they did not know.

"I think one would like to see all the stops being pulled out to move us out of stagnation in convictions," said Vetten. 

Pistorius's enormous wealth also sets his trial apart from others. "What we're seeing with the Oscar case is that if you've got the money, a team of lawyers and forensic experts, you're not equal before the law," said Erfani-Ghadimi.

Pistorius, who has a declared annual income of R5.6-million and millions more in assets, has a highly experienced legal team, top forensic and firearm experts, and a media manager on his defence team.

Clearly most South Africans do not have the same advantages when they are arrested, and it shows. Take the issue of bail, said Erfani-Ghadimi. It is supposed to be based on what a person can afford, but the amount is most often set at R1 000 for non-serious crimes, she said. "If you've stolen a load of bread, you can't afford that. So very often you're in jail awaiting trial because you can't afford the bail. It's crime of poverty." While ordinary South Africans cannot afford Pistorius's crack legal team, they should expect to be treated equally by the state. 

But not to be out-done by Pistorius's formidable defence team, the state too has put their top people – and resources – on the case. Three senior police officers were flown to the United States for a week to recover data from Pistorius's iPhone. Activists don't expect something akin to the American trip for all cases, but the level of expertise being directed at this case to help ensure a successful prosecution is missing elsewhere. 

"Vacancy rates for prosecutors hover at about a quarter," said Vetten. 

'Poor and insignificant'
In addition, a 2011 Public Service Commission report revealed that a fifth of detectives received no basic training, while the rest were mostly poorly trained.

"We have the right number of people, perhaps, but the problem is the people don't always have the experience and supervision that enable them to do the best job," said Vetten.

The Pistorius case, thanks to the publicity and resources involved from both sides, will have its best shot at justice for both Pistorius and his alleged victim Steenkamp. 

"What are the news values that drive stories?" asked Vetten. "Clearly being a celebrity, being good looking, being wealthy – all of those things outrank being poor and insignificant."

But chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng is bent on improving access to justice for the poor and marginalised in South Africa that is both speedy and efficient. His new "norms and standards for the performance of judicial functions" was gazetted on Friday. These call for a balance between accountability and independence of judges, pushing for judges to be more accountable to the public. The changes have been met with some discomfort among the judiciary.

If Mogoeng has his way, it could mean that Pistorius will not be the only one to have a speedy trial. The new standards prioritise the finalisation of criminal cases, saying "every effort shall be made to bring the accused to trial as soon as possible after the accused's arrest and first appearance in court" and stating that criminal matters should be finalised within six months after an accused person has pleaded to a charge.

Mogoeng also takes a hardline stance on judgments that are reserved for too long, saying that a fixed date should be set for handing down judgement when it is reserved. And "every effort shall be made to hand down judgements no later than three months after the last hearing". This means that the Pistorius case, which is set down for three weeks from today, could be concluded by the end of June.

If approved, all court cases, including criminals trials such as Pistorius's one, will be subject to these requirements. 


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