Oscar Pistorius: will one of most hyped murder trials in history be fair?

As an international media circus gathers and rolling TV coverage is planned, the frenzy of tweeting and commentary will put South Africa’s justice system under close scrutiny

“The Oscar Pistorius court case has all the elements of a Hollywood drama,” says the blurb for South Africa’s flagship current affairs TV show this week. “A superstar sporting hero, a beautiful victim, a glamorous lifestyle and, on Valentine’s Day – a dramatic killing. But this wasn’t fiction. It was fact.”

When Pistorius enters the North Gauteng high court on Monday morning, one of the most watched, most tweeted and most hyped murder trials in history will finally be under way.

South Africa, which had no television until 1975, will launch a channel providing the kind of 24-hour rolling coverage usually associated with wars. Dozens of journalists – including from Le Monde, the Wall Street Journal and Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun – will be part of an international media extravaganza never before seen in an African court.

At the centre of it all will be a case that has everything but a whodunit, since the Paralympian has already admitted shooting dead his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp, at his luxury home in the capital, Pretoria, on 14 February last year. At issue is whether he intended to kill her, which could see him go to prison for at least 25 years or, as he contends, mistook her for an intruder and fired four times in self-defence through a locked toilet cubicle door.

During the trial Pistorius will call on at least four forensic scientists and has hired a forensic animation company based in Cleveland, Ohio, to digitally recreate the crime scene using computer animation, and is understood to be funding his own defence without input from his family.

But while the prosecution and defence trade blows in a case that could last months, another trial will be taking place simultaneously: that of South African criminal justice. “This far exceeds any other court cases in terms of hype and media attention,” said Mandy Wiener, a journalist and author of Behind the Door: The Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp Story, one of several books about the case already in the pipeline. “It will certainly put the South African criminal justice system under the spotlight like no other case has done before.”

Although the innocence or guilt of Pistorius – known as Blade Runner because of the prosthetics he uses to compete in the Paralympics and Olympics – will be determined by judge Thokozile Masipa with the help of two assessors, there are still fears that the O J Simpson-style circus could jeopardise his chances of receiving a fair trial. The 27-year-old’s defence raised such concerns this week when they argued for a broadcasting blackout in court.

Despite ruling that the whole trial could be covered live on radio, and parts of it on TV, Judge Dunstan Mlambo said he was aware of plans for round-the-clock TV coverage and warned: “The so-called trial by media inclinations cannot be in the interest of justice as required in this matter and have the potential to seriously undermine the court proceedings that will soon start.”

He is not alone in such anxieties. William Booth, a defence lawyer, said: “The fact we have so much pre-publicity and commentary from experts means we will start pre-judging the case. Many judges tell me that they read newspapers, watch TV and listen to the radio. They have friends who ask them about cases. I know my friends ask me about cases I’m working on.

“Although they have legal training and are supposed to be objective, judges are human and we have never had a situation like this before. It’s crazy, hyped up media pressure and I think the judge and the assessors could be influenced.”

But media experts disagree. Anton Harber, director of journalism and media studies at Wits University in Johannesburg, said: “I think the danger of coverage threatening the fairness of the trial is easily exaggerated, especially without a jury. It is speculative and unquantifiable, whereas the positive side of open justice is more real and tangible.

“Pistorius will have the best legal minds defending him, a media team watching his back, and the justice system will be on its best behaviour, under the spotlight. We all know that is not typical of our courts, so he is more fortunate than most accused.”

There was evidence of Team Pistorius at work this week with the launch of a Twitter account, @OscarHardTruth, with the strapline “Truth Shall Prevail. Innocent until Proven Guilty”. By Thursday night it had more than 25,000 followers.

It is not only the frenzy of tweeting and punditry that will put South African justice under scrutiny. One of the key questions to be tested in court is whether police tainted the crime scene at the start of their investigation. During last year’s bail hearing, then lead detective Hilton Botha wilted under questioning, conceding that he had entered Pistorius’s home without the correct protective footwear, lost track of ammunition at the scene and made several false assumptions. This comes against a backdrop of cases of incompetence, corruption and brutality among the South African police.

The case has also stirred commentary on two perennial South African themes. Those who believe he is guilty point to the country’s high rate of domestic violence against women. Those who think him innocent but trigger-happy highlight the fear of crime, often with a racial dimension, that drives some to live in heavily guarded gated communities. “The man dubbed as the Blade Runner has articulated, to the point of triteness, the most popularly espoused white, middle-class South African paranoia,” journalist Niren Tolsi wrote in the Mail and Guardian newspaper last year.

Yet attempts to grasp at wider meanings are likely to fall by the wayside on Monday when the theatricality of “the trial of the century” takes over. Stepping into the dock in Pretoria, Pistorius will come face to face with Steenkamp’s mother, June, for the first time since the tragedy. Reeva’s father, Barry, reported to have had a major stroke, will not be in court.

Her uncle, Mike Steenkamp, said this week: “They’re taking every day as it comes until the trial date. It will be a form of closure, some stage of closure for them. With the justice system it all depends on the case, and with this type of case the system should be working. Let justice take its course.”

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