I hope I’m not in contempt of South African court by writing this before the final verdicts are handed down in the trial of Oscar Pistorius – as I write the court has just adjourned until tomorrow, with Judge Masipa having cleared the athlete of premeditated murder, but ending today’s proceedings with a verdict of culpable homicide (the equivalent of UK manslaughter) looking inevitable. The trial, which started in April, has had many elements of high drama, including more than its fair share of melodrama and even farce. It seems certain that after a ‘decent’ interval the story will be made into a Hollywood film (I find it difficult to know how on earth ‘decent’ could be defined).
I confess to being just as caught up in the courtroom drama as many others, and to becoming involved in the discussions about ‘do you believe him’? (Clearly there is no dispute about the fact that Pistorius shot his girlfriend dead, but endless argument about whether he intended to or not.) The lawyers for both prosecution and defence have been alpha males, full of their own ability and importance, two cocks strutting in the courtroom arena, circling around, seeking the place of vulnerability, the place to strike and make their kill. There have been numerous witnesses called; Oscar Pistorius has given evidence and also provided moments of drama, as when he participated in a reconstruction of the event and removed his prosthetic legs in the courtroom. Even when not speaking he made his presence felt, sobbing, or at one point repeatedly retching and vomiting into a bucket. The television cameras have panned in on every moment; they have followed Reeva Steenkamp’s mother into court, they have watched Pistorius’ sister comforting him in court.
Today’s drama has been different. Judge Masipa does not wear all the regalia (including the wig) of her UK counterparts. She has a quiet, contained air about her. She sits flanked by a large black man and a larger white woman. I don’t know what their roles are. The courtroom is in front of her, wooden panelled, simple, and Oscar Pistorius sits on his own on one of the benches, just one bench amongst the many. There are uniformed police officers just behind him, but an uninformed onlooker would not know obviously who in the room was the defendant.
Judge Masipa speaks slowly, quietly, clearly, in lightly accented South African English. She has an enormous sheaf of papers in front of her – presumably her judgement, as South Africa does not have jury trials. I am enormously impressed by her presence, her unassuming authority. She is meticulous in her explanations, taking us through complex points of law with simple examples whenever she can. I am left with no doubt that she has researched thoroughly and is scrupulous in her objective application of the law. I am impressed too by the times at which she says that there is no objective measure to guide her, and that therefore she must take the case of ‘the reasonable man’ – and then she enumerates the attributes that her reasonable man must have in this case – those that are vital to consider and those that are not.
In the light of the behaviour of this impressive judge I am therefore upset by a number of tweets that appear (retweeted from others) on my twitter feed. Having read some discussion about contempt of court I realise that the majority of the tweets that have disturbed/ upset/ worried me are in contempt of court so I’m not going to repeat them. However the essence of all of them is to speculate on the integrity of the law, specifically here South African law, because a verdict of premeditated murder has been rules out today. Other tweets are already talking about miscarriages of justice – when justice has not yet been handed down. Women from the ANC and other women’s groups are demonstrating outside the courtroom, demanding justice for Reeva (which, it seems, can only be served by finding Pistorius guilty on the strongest charge possible and locking him up forever). I could go on with increasingly specific and therefore contemptuous examples.
My distress lies not with the flagrant contempt of court (I do not think that Judge Masipa will be reading #PistoriusTrial or #OscarTrial trending on twitter this afternoon, and even if she were to do so I suspect that she would be amused and the appalling level of general education and reasoning displayed by so many) – no my distress is because the majority of these tweets emanate from people (usually but not exclusively) who call themselves feminists or supporters of women’s rights.Another group of tweets come from people who think that the judge has misinterpreted the law – needless to say, to the best of my knowledge these tweeters do not have any qualifications in South African law (and probably not many in English law either).
Amateur ‘experts’ are part of life, and crop up everywhere. Healthcare and education are particularly susceptible – most of us have been guilty at one time or another of deciding that we know more that our child’s teacher, and the days of being in awe of one’s doctor and accepting everything he (I think the advent of more women in medicine has humanised it a bit) says as Gospel truth. The fact that the tweeters happily criticising Judge Masipa and her interpretation of the law, and those implying that she has been bought off, or cowed into finding Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder are in contempt of court seems to bother them not one bit.
It seems that when the law fails to deliver the verdict required by a particular group of people then by definition the law must be wrong, or have been misinterpreted. The law of the mob becomes a superior law; the mob has the certainty and truths that the law (or the judge) lack. Of course there have been flagrant miscarriages of justice in our courts, and I am sure in the post-apartheid South African courts too. However tempting in is to deal with miscarriages of justice by taking the law into one’s own hands this can never be right in a democratic society. At present there is no evidence that any miscarriage of justice has occurred in the Pistorius trial – indeed the final verdict have yet to be delivered so do not know the outcome of the judicial process.
Many of the tweets with the hashtag #reevasteenkamp or #justiceforreeva are from women focused on domestic violence.I am as horrified as any woman by the appalling amount of domestic violence that goes on in relationships at all levels of society. Occasionally the roles are reversed and violence is directed at men from women. The UK government has recently recognised that not only physical violence needs addressing but also emotional violence. Of course we should identify men (in all classes of society) who are abusive. They should be have education and treatment to stop them abusing again. Research suggests that men who are violent to their partners usually escalate the level of violence over time, and that the risk of fatal violence is dramatically increased when there is access to a gun. Indeed when men who have shot their wives or girlfriends are asked whether they would have used a different means to kill had they not had a gun available, they are unanimous in saying no.
Judge Masipa made this point when delivering her judgement – she said that if there had not been a loaded firearm in the apartment then the fatality could not have happened. Sadly she accepted that in the country and city that Pistorius lived in it was reasonable to own a gun. There was a notorious case in the UK when a farmer was disturbed by a burglar at night and fired his shotgun at two intruders down the stairs. Despite the younger (16y old) pleading for his life he was shot and died. The farmer was subsequently found guilty of murder because although the judge said that an owner was allowed to take reasonable action to defend his property, the action had not been reasonable. In South Africa and in the United States one assumes that because both have strong gun cultures in which shooting in one’s defence is considered reasonable, then killing an intruder would be extraordinarily unlikely to result in a conviction for murder.
None of this excuses taking the life of another person. A gun culture increases the chances of people being killed intentionally and unintentionally. Violent societies beget violent citizens, whether this is low level violence, domestic violence, gang violence, or killing, intentional or otherwise. It is difficult for us in the UK to put ourselves in the position of our counterparts in South Africa.