South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius first won worldwide respect for overcoming considerable odds to compete in the 2012 Summer Olympics; he then earned near universal disdain for the fatal shooting of his girlfriend, model and paralegal Reeva Steenkamp in Pretoria last year. On March 3, Pistorius will stand trial for Steenkamp’s murder. His defense relies on his claim that he believed Steenkamp was an intruder, and that he fired his 9mm pistol through a closed door in self-defense. His trial is predicted to be a media extravaganza, and journalists from around the world are ready to cover the trial.
The court will allow a special 24-hour channel to focus purely on the trial. For the first time under South African law, much of the court proceedings will be broadcast live. However television viewers will only be able to see the opening and closing arguments, testimony from experts called by the two sides, and the final judgment. Curiously, testimony from the defendant and witnesses will not be televised, but only broadcast audibly. The trial will also not allow close-up photographs. Lawyers for the defense have voiced concern that television cameras will hinder their client receiving a fair trial.
South Africa’s largest cable provider, MultiChoice, will be ready to offer constant reports of the trial. Such regular reporting has fueled a claim by some people of media sensationalism. However Dunstan Mlambo, the judge that ruled in favor of broadcasting the trial, stated that court proceedings are in fact public. Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa, who became the second black woman to be appointed to South Africa’s high court, will preside over Pistorius’ murder trial. If she feels it necessary, she can stop the recording.
The prosecution is seeking a conviction for premeditated murder. It will focus much of its attack on discrediting Pistorius’ statements. Why would a burglar lock himself in a bathroom? When Pistorius got out of bed to fetch his pistol, didn’t he notice that his girlfriend was not lying beside him, and could be in the bathroom? Furthermore, the prosecution will argue that Pistorius fired several shots, intending to kill the person that he in fact knew to be Steenkamp. Other questions will revolve around claims that Pistorius told security everything was “fine” after the shooting.
If Pistorius is convicted of premeditated murder, he faces up to 25 years to life in prison. South African legal system does not have trial by jury; Judge Masipa will deliver the verdict. Even if Pistorius if cleared of murder he may still face charges of culpable homicide which is a less serious conviction, but can still result in prison time. He also may face illegal weapons charges.
The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius promises to be an important event, not only for the people involved, but for South African media as well. If the recordings and broadcasts provide up to date reports without causing any kind of disruption, South Africa may see more publicized trials in years to come. Many of the reporters getting ready for the trial have spent much of their careers following Pistorius and his accomplishments. The media will now be there to see if Pistorius accomplishes proving his innocence.
By Ian Erickson