As the Oscar Pistorius trial drags to a close, and twitter is filled with people calling out for either mercy, or a long prison sentence, I have been thinking a great deal about my own life experiences, and what this means when it comes to the law. I know very little at all about law, justice or what happened in Oscar Pistorius’ trial.
I know nothing at all except how to watch the BBC Series Silk, where a feisty defense attorney, Martha, gets her clients a ‘not guilty’ verdict, purely by creating reasonable doubt. Martha argues that everybody has the right to a fair trial, and this includes, in her words, a ‘horrible man’ who has a previous history of assault, and who, it seems, has gone into an 85 year old man’s flat, battered him, yawned, and left.
Silk brings up a lot of different arguments. This burglar, Garry Rush, was set up by the police, and Martha convinces the jury of this. Did the police know he was guilty? No, it seems not, because they removed DNA evidence from a door handle before arresting him. If the arresting police offer had firmly believed the offense was carried out by Garry Rush, perhaps he would have left DNA evidence on the door handle, and allowed it to be tested so that his suspect could be tried and convicted. But he didn’t.
Perhaps he didn’t want to miss the chance to remove a dangerous man off the streets. And he would have been right. We later learn that this man did indeed commit the crime, stealing a medal and later sending it to Martha Costello. But if Garry Rush was not the criminal responsible for brutally beating an old man, perhaps a different but equally harmful baddie would have been left to roam the streets, attacking another old person but confident that he would not be caught.
Silk points out the grey areas of the legal system, and the right to a fair defense. It hasn’t taught me a lot about law, as much as some of the struggles lawyers face. What is the story which is presented in court, and what is the truth behind this? What are the presumptions juries bring with them? What are the subtleties within each case? And as a lawyer, do you have to do your job anyway, no matter what, so that your client has a fair trial, even if you go home and grieve about it afterwards?
The truth, it seems, is nuanced, and as viewers of a television program, we get to look into the background, into the doubts and uncertainties, and the lengths that some criminal barristers will go to to either defend or prosecute a client. As television viewers, we know that the story sometimes unravels for us in the court room, and we learn more clearly what happened. But sometimes, we also learn what didn’t. That’s the benefit of television, where you get to go behind the scenes, and the truth may not come out in court, but it is revealed in our private homes, to us, privileged to see all of the different perspectives and then the end reality.
In real life, we get to know what gets told in court. We get to learn the multiple sides, and we don’t always get to know the truth of what happened. This is particularly true when that truth exists inside the mind of a single man. What was he thinking at the time he shot his girlfriend? Only he knows that, and whether we agree or disagree with what he presents to the court, we will never really know more than he is willing to share.
Psychologists have had a guess at what may have happened, based on messages written during a fight. The media have pointed out the fact that a woman expressed fear of her boyfriend, and have declared that in a world where a woman is frightened, and then shot, the court should have seen this message as a red flag. People have asked why he did not call out for his girlfriend to ask where she was, why he shot at the intruder instead of trying to escape, and why a man who was so determined to run as an able bodied athlete should use his disability now in order to stay out of prison? But nobody knows what happened except for him.
This trial has brought up my own subjectivity in many ways. The women’s movement has shared (particularly in the Guardian) that women are most often killed by their male partners. Some have pointed out the danger of the court finding Oscar Pistorius not guilty of murder. In a world where women are in danger, and men kill women, a not guilty verdict when it comes to murder may mean that more men are free to kill their partners, and then claim to have mistaken them for an intruder. The fight to get domestic violence recognized as a crime and to have charges followed up has been difficult enough. What happens if a woman is killed, even unintentionally in a fit of rage, and courts are no longer seen as a deterrent, they ask?
There are so many perspectives to take into account that it is hard to understand the impacts of any judgement on wider society. It’s possibly harder to understand as an outsider to the criminal justice system, with no real understanding of the subtleties of law. The only real understanding I have is the right to a fair trial. And lately, I have been wondering how objective this will ever seem through the eyes of the public. I have been wondering this because I listen to the versions offered up by the prosecution and defense with my own story in mind.
About ten years ago, when my daughter was still very little, our home was burgled while we were out. Very little was taken, and the greatest impact seemed to be on our cat, who started to hide behind the furniture. I thought that the situation was over, until one morning a couple of weeks later, when I felt really tired. I had been awake with my daughter for a great deal of the night, and fell asleep next to her. Scott came in to say that he was going to be going to work, but perhaps Danny and I should have a sleep in. I went back to sleep and woke up what felt like a long time later.
When I woke up, I heard somebody walking around. First through the living room, and then in the kitchen. I saw shadows pass under the bedroom door, and heard somebody rummaging around in the bathroom. I was half awake, very irrational, and I certainly didn’t like the idea of somebody else in the house while my daughter was there. Instead of waking her up, trying to leave or calling for help, I flew into a fit of rage, walked towards the bathroom without any fear of consequence, and kicked the old fashioned door open so hard that the stained glass shattered against the bathroom tiles. I shouted (while blocking the doorway) “GET OUT!!!!” My poor husband nearly swallowed his toothbrush. I saw him, said “Oh, it’s you. Okay.” and went back to check on my daughter. He hadn’t called out to let me know it was him, but then I’d been silent until throwing the door open.
This was never, ever anything I thought I would do if I encountered an intruder. I thought I would run away, go out the back door, climb onto the roof, hide, call for help, press the alarm button, or generally do something far less mad than I did. And this experience shapes my understanding of the trial, and what I see as normal. I didn’t shoot at anybody, and I had no urge to shoot at anybody. But I haven’t had any urge to shoot at my partner in an argument either, and to imagine doing so feels impossible.
My experience is different to that of many other people. Perhaps some people have had experienced with locking themselves away from a partner, and this is what they see. Others may never understand confronting an intruder. Some people may well understand that fear of danger may be greater within a home than outside one, and a burglar may be less frightening than a partner. All of these different aspects shape how we interpret the stories and happenings which go on in the world around us. It is probably why a judge should interpret the evidence before her, in order to ensure as fair a trial as possible.
Do all people in South Africa have the right to a fair trial? That’s an important question. Equally important is the fact we do know: a woman lost her life in the most terrible of circumstances. And that is the true tragedy of this case.