“It would be a sad day for this country if an impression were to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged, and another for the rich and famous,” said Thokozile Masipa, the judge ruling on the case of the famous athlete Oscar Pistorius.
Pistorius was recently found guilty of having killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013. From the comment cited above, it is clear that Masipa went to considerable effort in ensuring that Pistorius did not receive special treatment purely because of his fame. Nonetheless, though the media attention Pistorius’ case has received will certainly have made life more difficult for the athlete, it has arguably led to his case being treated differently.
Whilst the South African authorities sought to ensure that their legal system was well represented on the international stage, in doing so they perhaps overlooked the possible side effects. Notably, it has taken far less time for the case to go through the court process than it normally would have for similar cases. The resources and speed with which it progressed has been described by Erfani-Ghadimi on ‘theconversation.com’ as “an anomaly”. Not only do “other cases normally take much longer,” explains Ghadimi, but “both the victims and the accused face the strong probability of a miscarriage of justice.”
Masipa sentenced Pistorius to five years imprisonment for culpable homicide, though there is every possibility that he will leave prison in less time than that. Under South African law, the minimum time Pistorius will serve is one sixth of the sentence. It is therefore likely – according to the defendant’s lawyer Barry Roux – that he will serve no more than two years behind bars with the remainder under house arrest.
The judge explained that she could not convict Pistorius for murder because it was not beyond reasonable doubt that it had not been an accident: Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a locked bathroom door, believing her to be an intruder. Masipa’s reasoning behind the judgment has been described as meticulous, yet the sentence has also received a lot of criticism for being too short.
The shortness of the sentence could possibly be attributed to the disparity between the resources available for the defence and the prosecution. The costs for the defence are estimated to be £995,000, it being necessary for Pistorius to sell his house to pay for the legal bills. In comparison, others have suggested that the length of Pistorius’ sentence can be attributed to the shortcomings of the prosecution. Roxanne Gay of the Guardian writes that “the prosecutors did not do enough to prove that Pistorius committed premeditated murder” and the short sentence was perhaps due to their own “failure.”
Whether or not this is true is a matter for debate. Nevertheless it highlights another point of interest: how do those with fewer resources than Pistorius afford an adequate defence team if he had to sell his house?
Throughout the trial there was also much concern that the prison system would not be able to accommodate Pistorius’ disabilities. In her judgment, Masipa expressed confidence that it would be. In fact, not only could Pistorius be accommodated within the system, but his money and fame might provide a source of protection. According to sources of South African newspaper, ‘The Times’, a mobile phone is already waiting for Pistorius inside the prison.
Whilst Judge Masipa has made considerable effort to treat Pistorius like any other individual on trial, it is evident that it may take a long time for the criminal system in South Africa to do the same.