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An Oscar for Pistorius

Tayo Ogunbiyi

In the early hours of February 14, 2013, South Africa athlete and paralympian, the famous blade runner, Oscar Pistorius, shot and killed his model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, at his Pretoria home in South Africa. Oscar’s trial for the murder of Reeva began March 3, 2014 at the High Court of South Africa in Pretoria with Judge Thokozile Masipa presiding.
In the course of the trial, Oscar pleaded not guilty to the murder and for arms possession charges, denying the allegations of murder in the strongest terms. He claimed that an intruder had broken into his house and was in his bathroom when he fired the shot that killed Reeva.
Contrary to Oscar’s claim, however, a witness had told the trial that she believed Reeve’s life was under serious threat as she heard ‘bloodcurdling screams’ on the night she got killed by Oscar. The witness, Michelle Burger, told the court she heard two people, a man and a woman, shouting and getting involved in hot exchange. Burger added: “With the fear in that woman’s voice; you only fear that if your life is threatened”.
Also, in the course of the trial, Police mobile phone expert, Francois Moller, read out WhatsApp messages between Oscar and Reeves suggestive of a volatile relationship between the two. In one of such messages, Reeves was quoted to have written: “……You have picked on me excessively … I do everything to make you happy and you do everything to throw tantrums. I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me and of how you will react to me”. To those who could read between the lines, the above is indicative of two things. First is Oscar’s predisposition as one who easily gets angry. The second is that his relationship with Reeves at the time he shot her was on the edge.
Meanwhile, the wheel of justice continued to move slowly but steadily. On September 12, the presiding judge, Thokozile Masipa, gave a verdict that exonerated Oscar from murder but still found him guilty of the culpable homicide of Reeva as well as uncontrolled possession of fire arms. On 21st of October, after nine months of a fierce trial that caught and captivated the attention of the whole world, Judge Thokozile Masipa sentenced Oscar to prison for a maximum of five years for culpable homicide and a concurrent three year suspended sentence for separate reckless endangerment conviction.
Since the final verdict was delivered, there have been claims and counter claims over how long the athlete will serve in prison with the defence team indicating it expected him to be considered for house arrest after 10 months, and the National Prosecuting Authority insisting he must serve a minimum of one-third in jail: 20 months.
Meanwhile, the final verdict meted out to Oscar has been greeted with widespread outrage across the world as most people believe the Judge was too mild with Oscar, considering the gravity of the offence committed. As far as many are concerned, Oscar deserved life imprisonment.
Not quite a few people believe that Oscar should have been given a harsher sentence. It is rather ridiculous that the law would deal so mildly with a man who denied an innocent woman opportunity to a bright future ahead of her because of his insecurities. The sentence is a slap on the memory of the dead woman and a pain in the hearts of her parents and other family members. It becomes more painful to think that Oscar could be released into house arrest after serving out ten months out of the total prison term.  The ideal thing would be for Oscar to serve the sentence associated with the crime without parole.
Indeed, there is a conspiracy theory pointing to the fact that the five years jail sentence meted out to Oscar was carefully chosen by the Judge so that the paralympian would have the luxury of a parole after ten months. According to legal experts in South Africa, the five years imposed on Oscar was significant, because a longer sentence would not have given him a chance of house arrest. Under South African laws, after he has served a sixth of his sentence, Oscar can apply to spend the remaining time under house arrest. Therefore, experts insist that the five years sentence was a legal conspiracy and part of the general ploy to give Oscar a soft landing.
Some have argued that Oscar’s disability status justifies the mild sentence he got. Those who hold this view believe that a tougher penalty could completely destroy him physically and emotionally. But disability was no basis for him to escape the strong arm (does the law still possess that?) of the law. What happens to other physically challenged people that are in prison? Does it mean that a different law governs Oscar? The issue here is simply that of selective justice. Oscar, probably, got the favourable judgment he received because of his wealth and fame. Would an ordinary South African, without Oscar’s celebrity status and wealth, given same circumstances, have been treated in similar fashion? Does the judgment send the right signal to others, like Oscar, who resort to pulling the trigger at the slightest chance?
The concern here is not whether one has a disdain for Oscar, but that of the law serving its true purpose. In every free society, everyone, irrespective of class and status, is governed by a rule of law, as opposed to a whim-ridden rule of men. The main objective of such a rule of law is to protect the rights and interests of every member of the society. An efficient and effective justice system is one that protects the lives and liberties of citizens without violating the rights of some to provide gains to others.
The deduction to be made from the Oscar Pistorius’ case is that law has its limitations. In Nigeria, for instance, a rape offender could get off the hook with a fine option of N250, 000. Recently, a robbery suspect openly boasted on popular television programme, ‘Crime Fighter’, that the penalty for the theft offence he committed is a mere three months in prison. This brings us to the subject of the law as an ass. Overtime, it has been established that the law, itself, serves as an impediment to justice.
In Charles Dickens’ famous novel, ‘Oliver Twist’, Mr. Bumble, the miserable husband of a domineering wife, is told in court that “…the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction”, Bumble replies:”If the law supposes that, the law is a ass – a idiot”. What else could be said of a law that literarily gave Oscar an Oscar award for the murder of his girlfriend?

•Ogunbiyi writes from Alausa, Ikeja

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