March 6th, 2014
11:24 AM ET

Oscar Pistorius Trial: South Africa's Legal System in the Spotlight

South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria home.

The Paralympic sprinter stands accused of the premeditated murder of Reeva Steenkamp in his home on February 14, 2013. He also faces a gun charge related to the killing, along with two additional gun-related charges for two separate instances of firing a gun in a public space before the killing.

What's the difference between the rules of a trial in South Africa and those in the United States? CNN's Chris Cuomo explains in the video above.

South Africa abolished jury trials in 1969, while the country was under apartheid, due to fears of racial prejudice by white jurors. Pistorius will be tried in a high court in Pretoria by Thokozile Matilda Masipa - the second black woman appointed to the bench since apartheid ended

There's no hard timeline but it's expected to last about three weeks.

For premeditated murder, the mandatory sentence in South Africa is a life sentence, which in practice is 25 years unless someone can prove extraordinary circumstances.

Extraordinary circumstances could include a combination of number of factors: for example, that it was a first offense, the age of the person and in Pistorius' case, his disability and the impact this could have had on his actions.

However, legal expert James Grant said if the court accepted the prosecution's case - that Pistorius chased Steenkamp into the bathroom and "hunted" her down - the track star's defense team would be hard-pressed to convince the court that there should be any considerations that should override the repugnance that should be felt.

If Pistorius is found not guilty, he would face a "competent verdict" or lesser charge of culpable homicide, which is based on negligence.

Pistorius is not claiming self-defense; he is claiming to have been mistaken about his need for self-defense. He is denying that he intentionally unlawfully killed Steenkamp.

Grant said the defense boiled down to Pistorius saying "I made a mistake."

If the court were to rule that the mistake was unreasonable - based on what an objective, ordinary South African would do in the circumstances of the accused - he would be found guilty of culpable homicide.

Grant said he would expect a court to probably conclude that it is unreasonable to fire at anybody through a closed door regardless of whether they were an intruder, because of the value of human life.

"I'm expecting that if he beats the murder charge, he is in very grave jeopardy of being convicted of culpable homicide," he said.

What about appeals?

If Pistorius is convicted, he could potentially appeal to the supreme court and even eventually to South Africa's constitutional court.

If the initial court did not give him leave to appeal, he could petition South Africa's chief justice for permission.

The right to appeal depends on whether, based on the facts of the case, the initial judge or magistrate believes a different court could possibly reach a different verdict.

South Africa's highest court, the constitutional court, used to be only for cases regarding constitutional matters, but a recent act of parliament broadened its remit.

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soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. moira hewitt

    I have been concerned that if OP appealed against any sentence he may receive that the case would drag on for years but was pleased to read that a legal expert stated that it would be unlikely an appeal would be accepted, as he has had one of the absolute best lawyers in South Africa working for him already anyway!

    April 17, 2014 at 7:13 am | Reply
    • Daniel King

      I also suspect that any lawyer/magistrate etc that watched his excruciating attempts to describe why or how he started or stopped shooting under cross-exam would be very disinclined to grant an appeal...

      April 23, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  2. Ellen van der Hoeven.

    Hello Africa ! "An Intruder in the bath room " - Really ?
    We sorrow with Reeva's family.

    March 8, 2014 at 9:23 am | Reply
  3. gee

    On "CNN SPOTLIGHT" Show Oscar's recollection of the story about him getting up to bring in the fan from the Balcony and closing the door! Did I HEARD that CORRECTLY? .IF EVERYBODY IS SOO SCARED OF INTRUDERS. in AFRICA...THEN.WHY DID HE HAVE HIS BALCONY DOORS OPEN... PERIOD!

    March 7, 2014 at 10:44 pm | Reply
  4. Bhongolethu

    What i'm thinking is ....why did oscar not check 1st that his wife and othr family members are safe ....and how can he just shoot without even be sure whom was on the toilet?

    March 7, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  5. Bill

    I am in the shooting sport almost 45 years. I have been in many class rooms on both sides of the desk many times.
    The actions of Mr.Pistorius the night of the shooting is against all I have ever learned. Basic safety.
    To keep it short: defending your home and family you must make sure everyone is behind you.
    Never fires blindly or anyway through a door, wall, anything you don't know what is on the other and even then the first question is why? His actions of that night , tell me, he would fail any American course/class I know of.

    March 7, 2014 at 8:54 am | Reply
  6. claudiah

    Pistorius version of "burglars" is really far-fetched,it simply defies logic ,it doesn't square up:
    he did hear "noises" in the night,the first thing one would do 
    reactively is to check if it is your partner who is walking about.Why 
    didn't he instantly whisper to her to make sure she was there,even for 
    the sake of her safeness!What an amazingly absurd story of Oscar's 
    "burglars" .
    Whichever way, even assuming he was 
    slow-reactive(undoubtedly though for a professional runner) ,within the 
    time it takes him to find the gun in the dark, he should have come to 
    think even in a fraction of a second that it could be Reeva got up and
    check then if it wasn't her,but no.
    2.He gets straight to the 
    bathroom and simply shoots into a closed door without any warnings at 
    all but knowing there is a person behind and not only 
    once"accidentally" but several times making sure whoever was behind 
    was dead!Cold blooded murder I call it. 
    How unrealistic his version,unbelievable..
    on earth would a burglar be doing in the bathroom anyway and locked 
    behind it.If so ,then why did Oscar not warn that he had a gun and the 
    police is on its way,why shoot blindly not even being absolutely sure
    it wasn't Reeva on the toilet .

    March 7, 2014 at 2:23 am | Reply

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