Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the trial of Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp are presenting their final arguments on Thursday and Friday in a courtroom in Pretoria, South Africa.
Under South Africa's legal system — a hybrid of Roman-Dutch civil law, British common law and customary law inherited from the indigenous population, according to Media Club South Africa — the Olympic athlete's trial is being overseen by a single judge, red-robed Thokozile Masipa. She has appointed two "assessors" to help her reach a verdict.
Media Club South Africa has published a useful FAQ on some of the other technical points and considerations of the trial that started on March 3. Extracts below.
What is Pistorius being charged with?
"Pistorius is facing charges of premeditated murder and the illegal possession of ammunition after shooting Reeva Steenkamp, his partner, to death through the closed bathroom door in his house on 14 February 2013. He claimed to have mistaken her for an intruder. In December last year two additional charges were added to the trial, for separate incidents of illegally discharging a firearm through the sunroof of a car, and under a table at a restaurant."
Pistorius's case is considered a Schedule 6 offence. What is a Schedule 6 offence and what sentence does it carry?
"Schedule 6 offences relate to premeditated murder; killing of a law enforcement officer; killing as a result of rape or robbery with aggravating circumstances; robbery with the use of a firearm that results in grievous bodily harm; rape; gang rape; and rape of a person under 16 years, or a mentally or physically disabled person. If found guilty, the suspect receives a life sentence, which is a minimum of 25 years . He will only be eligible to apply for parole after serving that term."
What happens to Pistorius if he is found guilty of premeditated murder?
"This will depend on the offences of which the accused is convicted. The new(ish) minimum sentencing provisions contained in schedules 1 and 2 to the Criminal Procedure Act 1977 provide in the case of premeditated murder for life imprisonment."
If proven not guilty of premeditated murder, what will he be charged with?
"He can be found guilty of a lesser charge of culpable homicide based on negligence. This is because Pistorius claims he fired his gun in self-defence, thinking there was an intruder behind the bathroom door. If the judge believes him, he may receive either a non-custodial sentence or face up to 15 years in prison."
If Pistorius is found guilty of premeditated murder, what are his appeal options?
"An accused person who is convicted in the High Court may appeal to either the Provincial Division (to be heard by a Full Court of three Provincial Division judges) or directly to the Supreme Court of Appeal.
However, the accused needs to apply, in the first instance to the judge who passed sentence for permission to appeal. If the judge is of the opinion that there is a reasonable prospect that another court may come to a different conclusion, leave to appeal will be granted. If not, leave to appeal will be refused. If refused, the accused may then petition (apply) to the Supreme Court of Appeal (to be dealt with by two judges on the record of the proceedings) and they may grant leave to appeal or refuse the petition.
An accused may appeal ultimately to the Constitutional Court, who will decide whether to entertain the appeal.
According to Johannesburg legal advisor, Kajol Singh, Pistorius's appeal will purely be based on whether new facts, which would prove his innocence, come to light."
What is the role of the assessors?
"For the Pistorius trial, Judge Masipa appointed Janet Henzen-du Toit and Themba Mazibuko as her assessors. They are there to help her make a decision. The assessors will sit with Judge Masipa during the proceedings and listen to all the evidence presented to the judge. At the end of the case they will present their opinions to Judge Masipa. However, she is allowed to override them.
On the Legal Brief website, Professor Annette van der Merwe, a criminal procedure law expert at the University of Pretoria, said the two assessors could overrule the judge when it comes to a verdict on the facts in a majority finding. This means that if the two assessors were to rule in favour of murder, or the judge and one assessor were to rule so, that verdict would be the accepted one. The same would apply if two of them were to rule in favour of an acquittal."