Yesterday in South Africa Paralympian Oscar Pistorius was finally given a five year custodial sentence for his conviction in respect of the culpable homicide of his then girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentines’ Day 2013.
[I should declare a minor personal interest here in that I am a lawyer, albeit one that hasn’t practised law, in the pure sense, for nearly forty years.]
I suspect, in common with many outside observers, from time to time ever since the moment of his arrest I have taken passing note of the progress of events in this unfortunate case and indeed formed my own strongly-held view of the circumstances of the night in question, the trial evidence and indeed the global interest in the story.
Sometimes, it seems to me, when you get to trials of widespread media interest, whether they be criminal or civil – especially those which, in whole or in part, are televised either ‘live’ or in ‘real time’ – it is perhaps inevitable that the ‘impartial’ observer, via the performances of the judge, lawyers and witnesses, will either form a personal impression of which version of the conflicting stories being presented he or she feels is more credible … or, alternatively, just as easily, become prey to a constant state of bewilderment as to where the actual truth lies.
[I’m thinking here of such famous celebrity trials as those of O.J. Simpson and indeed Oscar Pistorius, but there are probably at least half a dozen more to which these observations could apply.]
When two versions of the story appear to be diametrically opposed, but are presented with consummate professionalism by the advocates (as, of course, they should be), bewilderment as to where the truth lies is an easy state of mind to reach.
By definition, both sides cannot be correct. One of them must be ‘making it up’ or over-emphasising their version of events and simultaneously ignoring evidence that does not seem to fit with it.
Furthermore, in criminal cases, of course, the standard of proof tends to be ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ – and, as every legal textbook informs you, unless the prosecution can convince a jury to that degree of certainty, it is not entitled to obtain a conviction.
From here it can be an easy journey to the conclusion that the legal process, at least when it comes to trials, is ultimately a form of ‘game’ – albeit a really rather serious one – in which the competing teams are fighting to convince the judge (and/or jury) that their version of events is the true one … or, at the very least, closer to the real truth of the matter than the other side’s.
However, none of the above is the reason for this post.
Instead my related subject of the day is ill-informed comment or criticism, as sometimes appears in the media – especially the 24 hour news channels, continually struggling to fill their air-time, for whom any kind of ‘breaking news story’ (whether a natural disaster, an outbreak of war, a bomb going off in central London or a celebrity arrest) is inevitably regarded as ‘manna from heaven’ because it gives them a chance to do what they do best (… or should that be ‘easiest’?).
Yesterday afternoon, by chance, I came across senior presenter Kay Burley interviewing a lady (a representative of an organisation concerned with battered wives and the effects of domestic violence) about the Pistorius sentence on the 24 hour Sky News channel.
Sadly, I caught the name of neither the lady, nor the organisation she represented.
Throughout the five-minute interview the lady waxed strong and lyrical about how lenient and inappropriately short Pistorius’s incarceration was, especially given the reports – possibly originating with the defence legal team – that it was entirely possible that Pistorius could be released from prison into ‘house arrest’ in a period of less than a year and also that he might appeal the sentence anyway, a course of action he apparently has 14 days to consider.
Now I am fully prepared to acknowledge that the interviewee was only giving her opinion, as she had presumably been invited to do by the editors of Sky News. We are all entitled to an opinion. Furthermore I am not belittling the issue of domestic violence which, of course, is a serious issue.
However, my cause of irritation yesterday was this. Missing from any of her comments – and indeed the questions put to her by Kay Burley – was the fact that she was pronouncing upon South African law. Whether based upon those of England & Wales or not, inevitably the laws (and indeed legal conventions) of every sovereign country are peculiar to themselves in statute, legal precedence and potentially each and every detail, right down to the degree of importance given to probation officer or medical reports, that can affect an outcome.
In these circumstances, for this lady being interviewed on Sky News to pronounce that the Pistorius sentence was far too lenient (“What kind of message does this send out to victims of domestic violence?” was the gist of her thrust) was loopy in the extreme and should have been challenged.
Or so I shouted repeatedly at the screen yesterday.
She had no justifiable position – well, beyond that of anyone being allowed to give an opinion on anything if asked – from which to assert this from her Anglo-Saxon, Western, British perspective … well, at least, not without the caveat also being mentioned that, of course, the verdict had come down from a South African judge operating South African law in a South African context.
What right has any Brit to tell another country’s judiciary or people that their trial verdicts are ‘wrong’?!?
Absolutely none, in my view.