Oscar Pistorius Trial: A Look into South Africa’s Legal System

Murder, Crime

Neighbors claimed they heard screams followed by gunshots the night Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steencamp. Oscar Pistorius claims he thought he was defending himself against an intruder.

While today’s court proceedings may have seemed similar to how American courts work, there are significant differences between the South African and U.S. criminal justice systems. Here are some interesting differences in the South African legal system that U.S. residents may have discovered while following the Oscar Pistorius trial:

  1. No jury trials. Unlike in the U.S. legal system, there are no jury trials in South Africa The jury system was nixed in 1969 because of serious concerns of racial prejudice by white jurors during the apartheid era. Pistorius’ fate will be decided by a judge.
  2. No death penalty. In the United States, premeditated murder is considered first degree murder, which can be punished by death in many states. South Africa, however, abolished capital punishment in the 1990s. If Pistorius is convicted of premeditated murder, the mandatory sentence is life in prison — but he may receive just 25 years unless there are extraordinary circumstances, CNN reports.
  3. If acquitted of murder, Pistorius could face a lesser charge of culpable homicide. Culpable homicide is similar to a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the United States, as both involve unintentional killing resulting from extremely unreasonable behavior. If convicted of culpable homicide, Pistorius could face up to 15 years in prison; however, he could also just get a slap on the wrist–the sentence is at the judge’s discretion.
  4. Two “assessors” are on hand to help decide Pistorius’ fate. The judge in the Pistorius trial has appointed two “assessors” — legal experts who help the judge evaluate a case. Under South African law, assessors can potentially “overrule” the judge by a majority vote when it comes to deciding the verdict based on the facts of the case, South Africa’s Independent Online explains. For example, if both assessors find Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder based on the facts presented, that will be the accepted verdict even if the judge disagrees. However, when it comes to questions of law and sentencing, the judge has the final say.
  5. This is the first trial to be televised live in South Africa. According to CNN and Reuters, the Pistorius trial is the first to be televised live in South Africa, but it comes with limitations. Witnesses won’t be filmed by TV cameras as they testify if they don’t give consent. However, the opening and closing arguments, experts’ testimonies, and police evidence can be broadcast live.
  6. If Pistorius is convicted, he could potentially appeal to the supreme court and even eventually to South Africa’s constitutional court. If the initial court does not give him leave to appeal, he could petition South Africa’s chief justice for permission. The right to appeal depends on whether, based on the facts of the case, the initial judge or magistrate believes a different court could possibly reach a different verdict. South Africa’s highest court, the constitutional court, used to be only for cases regarding constitutional matters, but a recent act of parliament broadened its remit.