Pistorius latest appeal: A quest for justice or a waste of valuable resources?

By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius International Sports Law Centre University of Pretoria South Africa

The national prosecuting authority in South Africa recently announced that it would yet again launch an appeal in the case of the former paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius. This time against sentence.

Pistorius, who has never denied that he fatally shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, was initially convicted of culpable homicide and reckless endangerment and sentenced to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment on the first conviction, as well a three-year suspended prison sentence for the second conviction. After serving one sixth of his term in prison, Pistorius was released under correctional supervision to effectively serve the remainder of his sentence under house arrest.

In the meantime, the prosecuting authority appealed the culpable homicide conviction and the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld the appeal. Pistorius was convicted of murder and the matter was referred back to the trial court for re-sentencing. The trial court sentenced Pistorius to a further six years in prison. And it is this sentence that is now under appeal.

This begs the question. Is this an honest quest for justice, or a waste of valuable resources, which, in a country with an alarmingly high crime rate, could have been more effectively used elsewhere?

There is a growing trend that celebrities who commit crimes receive preferential treatment, but this does not mean favourable treatment. In fact, it is becoming quite the opposite. The trend is more and more that celebrities are being treated more severely in the penal system.

A case in point is the prison sentence served by Paris Hilton in 2007. She was sentenced to 45 days in prison for an alcohol-related driving offence. After two days in prison, she was released after a few days, with an electronic-monitoring bracelet, to serve the rest of her sentence at home. This was routinely done to alleviate overcrowding in county jails. However, when the press got wind of Hilton’s release, Hilton was ordered back to prison, where she eventually served half of the sentence before she was given time off for good behaviour.

Harland Braun, an attorney who regularly represents celebrities who are accused of crimes, is quoted as saying:

I think the worst kind of position you can be in is to be a celebrity charged with a crime. Because what would be a normal disposition in a regular case might not be available to a celebrity because everyone’s afraid of being criticized for looking like they were giving someone special treatment”.

So how does this relate to the Pistorius case? In a case, that has remarkable similarities with the Pistorius case, former Springbok rugby player, Rudi Visagie, fatally shot his own daughter in 2004 when he apparently mistook her for a thief trying to steal his car in the early morning hours. Prosecuting authorities declined to charge Visagie with any crime.

In a further incident that is even more eerily similar to the Pistorius case, businessman Siyabonga Mdunge fatally shot his wife in 2011, when he mistook her for a burglar, as she emerged from the bathroom in the early hours of the morning. Prosecuting authorities entered into a plea bargain with Mdunge with the result that he was convicted of culpable homicide and given a prison sentence of eight years, suspended in full.

So the question is, when compared to these other cases, why is so much effort being put into the Pistorius case?

Authorities tried to point out that there are important differences in these cases. It was said that Visagie had suffered enough with the loss of his only daughter. And in Mdunge’s case, it was said that Mdunge fired only one shot, compared to the four shots that Pistorius fired. In addition, in the Pistorius case, witnesses apparently heard a woman screaming.

Of course, there will be differences in each case, but one has to question, considering these very similar cases, whether the most significant difference is that Pistorius, unlike the other two, is world famous and receiving special treatment from the prosecuting authority because they want to show the world that they are taking a hard line on crime. In a country with a serious crime problem, perhaps the resources spent on the Pistorius appeals could have been much better spent on prosecuting other more violent criminals. But then again, Pistorius is a soft target.

In the end, we should never forget that this is a tale of human tragedy. A young woman, in what should have been the prime of her life, is dead. A family is bereft of their daughter. Also, a life of a young man, at the pinnacle of his sporting success, is ruined.

Should not justice be tempered with mercy?

Prof Dr Steve Cornelius may be contacted by e-mail at ‘steve.cornelius@up.ac.za’