“Blade Runner’s” Murder Trial Sheds Light On South African Criminal Justice System

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Posted on: April 15, 2014 

Famed Olympian Oscar Pistorius is in the midst of defending himself against charges that he murdered his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013. The case has worldwide attention given the disabled sprinter’s fame and fortune.

By way of background, Pistorius currently stands accused of shooting Steenkamp after what prosecutors say was a heated argument. Pistorius is charged with murder given that prosecutors believe the shooting was premeditated. For his part, Pistorius claims that he unintentionally shot Steenkamp, mistaking her for an intruder.

Given the headlines devoted to the trial, it might be helpful to understand some of the important differences between South African criminal justice cases and those here in the United States.

Jury trial

First, and most importantly, the South African criminal justice system differs markedly from the U.S. in one crucial respect: the absence of jury trials. South Africa is one of a very small number of places in the world that derive their laws from a Roman-Dutch legal tradition. This peculiar setup means that South African criminal defendants do not have the option of having their cases heard by a jury of their peers. Instead, the entire matter is decided by a judge who has the option of being assisted by two legal advisers. These advisers do not vote on the ultimate verdict, but can be used to assist with research and to answer technical legal questions.


Because Pistorius stands accused of premeditated murder he faces the most severe penalties allowed under South African criminal law. If convicted, Pistorius would be sentenced to life in prison. Though this may seem similar to penalties in the U.S., there are several important differences. First, there is no death penalty in South Africa, something that is common across the U.S. for similar crimes.

Second, a “life sentence” in South Africa is seldom that. Instead, those sentenced to life behind bars typically only serve 25 years, and even then, showing of “extraordinary circumstances” can reduce that number further. Some of the factors that could reduce Pistorius’ sentence include the fact that he has no previous criminal record, his relatively young age and, believe it or not, his physical disability. 


In the U.S., defendants have an array of options when it comes to filing an appeal. In South Africa, those options are far narrower. If Pistorius is ultimately found guilty, he is not even guaranteed the right to appeal. The judge could decide to refuse Pistorius leave to appeal, in which case his only option would be to directly request an exception from South Africa’s chief justice. If the judge does allow appeal, then Pistorius could bring his case to the country’s supreme court and eventually to the South African Constitutional Court, the country’s highest legal body, provided the case touched on specific constitutional matters. 

Charleston criminal defense lawyer David Aylor understands how scary and confusing important legal matters that threaten your freedom can be. If you or someone you know needs legal assistance, please contact an experienced lawyer who can guide you through the complexities of a South Carolina criminal case. For more information, call our office at 843-744-4444.

Source:Oscar Pistorius Trial Day 22: Blade Runner’s strategies crumbling under intense interrogation,” by Nastasya Tay, published at Yahoo.com.


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