Oscar Pistorius’s Fair Trial

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Recently there was an article published on Vada which questioned whether the media access, the live broadcasting, and the immediacy of social media was threatening Oscar Pistorius’s right to a fair trial. It asked whether all that access could lead to witness intimidation or result in testimony that was not truthful, and whether all the media commentary, analysis and interpretation would cloud the facts around the case. At least, I think that’s what it was saying.

To an extent it is undeniable that the media are behaving like a pack of ravenous wolves circling a dying foe. The media coverage the Sunday before the trial commenced was particularly sensationalist and lacking objectivity, with just about every news outlet in the country running articles calling this the trial of the century and wildly guessing at the direction the case was going to take. My favourite speculation centred on how much Oscar’s porn surfing habits would impact the case, like it would matter. The circus was a master class in conjecture and drama.

But so what?

In truth, the media has little influence over anything in this case. While the court has allowed the case to be broadcast live and journalists are allowed to live-tweet from the court, the court has also ordered that witnesses need to consent before they can be filmed and in some cases the court has even ordered that media outlets may not print any photos (past or present) in any medium of the witness if they have asked to be photographed. Potential witnesses can also choose to isolate themselves from social media if they somehow feel it will influence their testimony. Notably the court ordered that the testimony given by the pathologist may not be recorded, nor were journalists allowed to live-tweet his testimony from the court room in order to protect the dignity of the deceased.

Concerns that witnesses may be intimated or change their testimony as a result of social media or the coverage they are exposed to before their trial is ridiculous. Witnesses that have a social media account will have access to what other people are saying about the trial, but how exactly will this affect the testimony they give? If they are a lay witness (i.e. not an expert) they can protect themselves from social media intimidation or exposure by just not going on social media. If they are an expert witness, they are used to testifying at trials and I am sure they can handle any added pressure the high profile nature of this trial adds. No court in the world can protect any witness that has a twitter account from other people on twitter, and why should it? And trust me, Oscar Pistorius’s lawyers are equipped enough to notice when someone’s testimony has changed or cannot be verified: in fact they have already discredited several witnesses and not once has there been any proof that a witness has changed his or her testimony because of how the trial has been covered in the news.

Moreover, the amount of analysis and comment and opinion about the trial cuts both ways: it can both helps and hinder the defence’s argument. Opinion can, and has on occasion, turned in favour of Pistorius’s defense. The coverage of the trial, at least in the local press, has definitely not been one-sided. Not that the so called ‘media-trial’ even matters: a media-trial has no way of influencing a verdict because South Africa doesn’t have a jury system. No one who actually has the power to convict Oscar Pistorius can be influenced unduly by the coverage of the trial or the opinions of the media. There is one judge (who doesn’t have a Twitter account, I checked) who has been trained to use the evidence in front of her to make her decision and surely will not be reading the opinions of the peeps on the internet when she reaches it. It is for that reason, and that reason more than any other, that the media coverage any trial in this country receives has little effect on how fair the trial is in the eyes of the law.

If anything, the amount of attention this trial received probably helped Pistorius. It meant he only had to wait a year for his trial date, instead of the five years other people accused of murder in South Africa have to wait for their fair trials. It means he can afford bail and doesn’t have to sit in prison while he awaits trial, unlike so many others. It means that the state’s case is under extra scrutiny and any mistakes made by the police or the investigators will be jumped on by media houses from all over the world. It means he gets the best lawyers. It means the South African justice system is under a lot of pressure to make sure this trial is fair – because the world is watching.

And why shouldn’t his trial get this kind of attention anyway? He certainly got it when he was winning medals and fighting to run in abled-bodied races; he certainly encouraged it. He was a national hero. And then he shot someone in cold blood – a fact not in dispute by the way. The only point of contention is that he claims he didn’t shoot Reeva Steenkamp in cold blood. He admits that he meant to shoot someone. Not someone who was standing over him with a gun, not in self-defence. Someone locked in a bathroom. Reeva Steenkamp or not, he still deliberately and with fore-thought meant to shoot someone, even if he thought it was a stranger. So of course, of course, people deserve to give this as much attention as they want to. He betrayed a nation; he killed someone.