The long-awaited verdicts in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, which has spawned world-wide interest and a captive audience, being the first televised trial in South Africa’s history, were delivered in the Pretoria High Court on 11 & 12 September, 2014. But some important unanswered questions remain!
The Judge found him not guilty of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, whom he shot dead on 14 February, 2013, but found him guilty of ‘culpable homicide’ – in other words, ‘manslaughter’.
Although, the Judge, Thokozile Matilda Masipa, took two days to read her detailed, lengthy and reasoned judgement, the not guilty of murder verdict has been criticised in some quarters of South African society, including the ANC, which regards the verdict as being politically motivated in some way – a black female judge from Soweto finding an Afrikaans white man not guilty of a capital crime in post-apartheid South Africa. Also, Steenkamp’s brother, Adam, is reported as saying that “Oscar Pistorius got away with murder!”
It is open to the Prosecution to appeal against this verdict on the grounds that the Judge misdirected herself – there are no juries in South African criminal trials – on the law of what constitutes ‘criminal intent’ (‘mens rea’) to establish the criminal offence of murder. ‘Intent’ takes three forms under South African Criminal Law: ‘dolus directus’, ‘dolus indirectus’ and ‘dolus eventualis’. The Judge considered and dismissed the possibility, on the facts, of ‘dolus eventualis’, which occurs when the perpetrator of the criminal act objectively foresees the possibility of his act causing death – in the present case, firing four shots through the bathroom door – but persist regardless of the consequences! If such an appeal was mounted and successful and a murder conviction was substituted, Pistorius could face imprisonment of between 25 years and life.
Apart from the possibility of such an appeal, Pistorius remains to be sentenced for ‘culpable homicide’, which carries, under South African Law, a maximum sentence – there is no minimum – of 15 years’ imprisonment. Sentencing will take place between 13 and 16 October, 2014.
Of course, the Judge, having heard submissions from the Prosecution and the Defence, may decide at the sentencing hearing to impose a fine, rather than a custodial sentence. In that case, there certainly would be, it is submitted, a general outcry! Likewise, a ‘suspended sentence of imprisonment’ is also possible, which would also produce the same reaction! The more likely outcome is a custodial sentence. But of what length?
In the latter case, how would Pistorius’s sporting career be affected? He will be 28 years old on 22 November, 2014 and, if he serves, say, a five year sentence, his sporting career will probably be at an end.
Apart from that, will, being convicted of the serious criminal offence of ‘culpable homicide’, give rise to any sporting sanctions being imposed upon him by any sport’s governing body to which he belongs, such as the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations)?
For example, under the IAAF disciplinary rules, in particular, rule 53.1(viii), conduct which is “ ….. likely to bring the sport [of athletics] into disrepute.” It is not inconceivable that the IAAF could impose a ban on him from competition, possibly for life for such a conviction and sentence, which would surely amount to bringing his sport into disrepute! Such a ban, which could be a lengthy one, would certainly put paid to his future career in athletics.
However, a spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) told the BBC on 12 September, 2014, that, if Pistorius wanted to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, the IPC “wouldn’t stand in his way.” What kind of attitude and comment is this?
In any case, let us wait and see how this continuing sad saga and drama finally plays out!
Prof Dr Ian Blackshaw is an international sports lawyer, academic and author and may be contacted by e-mail at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.