On the eve of South Africa’s most high-profile murder trial in years, Judge Dunstan Mlambo has taken to heart a familiar aphorism: “Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” As Oscar Pistorius, the famed Paralympics ‘Blade Runner,’ prepares to face a charge of murdering his beautiful girlfriend, Judge Mlambo of the Pretoria High Court has ruled that the trial proceedings can be broadcast live throughout the nation.
The ground-breaking decision is designed to allay widely-held fears in South Africa that the justice system is corrupt, and favorable to those with money and power. “The justice system is still perceived as treating the rich and famous with kid gloves whilst being harsh on the poor and the vulnerable,” Judge Mlambo said in a ruling delivered, appropriately enough, on live TV.
According to the judge, it is vital that poor South Africans are able to see and discuss a court case involving a wealthy sports icon, and be able to set aside their concerns of judicial bias. “Enabling a larger South African society to be able to follow first-hand criminal proceedings which involve a celebrity, so to speak, will go a long way into dispelling these negative and unfounded perceptions,” Judge Mlambo said.
Public radio will broadcast the entire trial, while TV networks – some exclusively set up to provide 24-hour coverage and analysis – have been allowed access to most of the proceedings. The Judge’s ruling permits the broadcast of opening arguments, testimony from expert witnesses and police officers, testimony from consenting state witnesses, and closing arguments. The judgement and sentencing will also be shown live.
However, there are several important restrictions in place: Pistorius’ testimony will not be broadcast live, nor will all witnesses for the defense and anyone else who objects – in writing – to their face being presented to the world during the trial. Additionally, all cameras will be unobtrusive and extreme close-ups of anyone in the court will also be forbidden.
Judge Mlambo will not be presiding in this case, however, and ultimate control over broadcast rights will fall to trial judge Thokozile Masipa who can stop the recording at any time. Judge Masipa has a weighty responsibility as the South African legal system does not have trial by jury: a judgement on Oscar Pistorius’ guilt or innocence on a premeditated murder charge will fall to him alone, and will be watched by millions of people around the world.
If convicted on the major charge, Pistorius faces 25 years to life in prison. He also faces charges of illegal possession of ammunition and two additional gun-related charges.
With the trial due to start on March 3, a media frenzy has already begun and the Pistorius camp has expressed concerns that the chance of a fair trial for the 27-year-old might be compromised by the television coverage. In making his decision, Judge Mlambo had to weigh these concerns against fundamental principles like freedom of expression and the interests of transparent justice.
The millionaire athlete, whose legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old and whose carbon-fiber prosthetic blades have helped earn him Paralympics Gold and the title of “the fastest man on no legs,” has admitted shooting Reeva Steenkamp to death through a locked toilet door in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, 2013. But, says Pistorius, he mistook the model and TV star for an intruder. He says he grabbed a gun from beneath the bed and, minus his prosthetics, fired wildly through the closed door. It is a familiar defense in a country where homeowners are legitimately allowed to shoot and kill intruders if they fear for their safety.
However, prosecutors allege that Pistorius’ story doesn’t make sense. Surely he would have noticed that the 29-year-old Steenkamp wasn’t in bed? Why shoot through the door if he had an intruder cornered? Wouldn’t a call to police have been more appropriate? And what about the shots themselves? Prosecutors say that there was “deliberate aiming” and moreover, that the shots were fired down, indicating that Pistorius was wearing his blades at the time.
Pistorius’ public relations team has responded to these allegations by setting up a Twitter account, @OscarHardTruth, which they say will “provide the hard truth as it unfolds and provide information that will become clearer during the trial.” The handle has already gathered more than 27,000 followers and that number is expected to increase greatly in the days ahead.
The case against Pistorius is a curious one, and in several ways resembles the O.J Simpson case of 1995. There’s a sporting idol accused of a terrible crime, the death of a beautiful girl, a plea of not guilty, and a rapt public awaiting every twist and turn as evidence is presented. And beyond all that, a question mark over whether justice will truly be seen to be done.