Some thoughts on the Oscar Pistorius verdict

images-2Here are some important things to know about the verdict given about Oscar Pistorius:

* He was found guilty

* He was found guilty of killing (homicide)

* He was found culpably (blamably) guilty of killing.

Perhaps it is because the South African legal language of culpable homicide is unfamiliar that confounds people abroad’s frustration that he was not found guilty of murder – but in truth, he was found guilt of the equivalent of manslaughter, or murder in the 3rd degree (at least).

I understand people’s frustration that he was found guilty for something less than murder. Believe me, I do.

And yet, I support the judge’s decision and wanted to explain why. Firstly, to be found guilty of murder, there must be evidence not only that the accused actually did the crime, but that they planned to do so. Proving mens rea (or, state of mind) is a necessary component. The rules of evidence require the prosecution to make a case which is beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill.

Anything less than that: like knowing your actions could possibly kill someone, is something less than full murderous intent. The categories of “lesser murder”, like manslaughter, or culpable homicide (depending on your jurisdiction), still hold people responsible for wrongfully taking life, but don’t have the intention-to-kill aspect.

Pistorius’ defense, flimsy and guilt-ridden as it may have been, pleaded that he did not intend to kill. He thought there might be an intruder in the house, they said. He thought his girlfriend was asleep next to him, they said.

In the handful of articles I have read on this, commentators are aghast that this excuse was considered “reasonable doubt”. Here again, I have a little more compassion. Was the threat of an intruder reasonable? Many say not. In an article from The Guardian, the writer commented that the “imaginary body of the paranoid imaginings of suburban South Africa has lurked like a bogeyman at the periphery of this story.”

To that, I would just want to say that I don’t think it’s fair to categorize the fear of a violent intruder as a fear of the “bogeyman”, or worse yet, a fear of the “black bogeyman”. For in the South Africa I know, the fear of being attacked in one’s home is real, it extends beyond class and colour lines, and it is a fear based on knowing first-hand stories of people to whom such things have happened.

My own personal collection of stories is sadly not uncommon in South Africa: I’ve been mugged twice, my home has been burgled, I have had to call the cops when my sister’s roommate called me from her closet to say that people had broken in to her house and she was hiding lest she be found. I have prayed for another friend’s elderly aunt and uncle who were beaten and raped in their home at night. I have a colleague whose daughter was murdered. I have a friend who lives in a home with the best security money can by in my mother’s neighborhood, and she has told me of the armed robbery in their home one evening just before dinner.  I have heard more whispered stories of rape than I can bear. I have felt the desire to murder in response.

A friend of mine posted this status update on social media this past week: “So in the news this evening: woman employee raped while at work at Helen Joseph, woman raped by burglars at Stellenbosch res, woman raped by man wanted by police for 10 years, durban high school employs a known paedophile who continues his abuse at the school and four teenagers convicted of raping a 10 year old boy as part of a game. And that’s just tonight’s news.”

World out there: it’s not an unreasonable fear.

Is it plausible to argue that a South African in the middle of the night might fear there was someone in their house wishing them harm? It might be. It might be considered reasonable. In South Africa, perhaps more so than many, many places in the world, it may be enough to raise reasonable doubt as to why someone might respond to a nighttime threat with a gun.

And so, in the tragic case of Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius, as much as I also long for justice to be fully realized, I also want to show support for the limits of what the judge could do. For to convict of murder, there needed to be proof of murderous intention, and the proof needed to be beyond reasonable doubt. Not just “he probably meant to kill her”. But “I am absolutely persuaded he intended to kill her, in particular.”

And given the context, and the fear that every single South African deals with – including the black, female judge who was called to weigh this matter, I am not surprised that the ruling was that there was a smidgen of reasonable doubt. Enough to find him guilty of killing her. Just not enough to find him guilty of doing so premeditatively.

And so, as the world awaits the sentence next month, I too am one hoping that he will be sentenced to the maximum jail time for his offense. And I take comfort in these things:

* He was found guilty

* He was found guilty of killing

* He was found culpably guilty of killing,

and, as a friend rightly pointed out, the most important thing of all is this:

* He still bears the lifelong burden of conscience and the need to be made right before God.

Just a few of my thoughts. For what it’s worth. (Since more than a few have asked for my once-upon-a-time-I-went-to-law-school-in-South-Africa opinion.) Holding my breath for sentencing day, and along with you all, hoping for justice.