As the world reacts to a South African judge’s decision to acquit Oscar Pistorius of premeditaed murder in his girlfriend’s death, some criminal lawyers in Canada say they weren’t in the least bit surprised by the verdict.
Howard Rubel, a certified specialist in criminal law at Heller Rubel, says he was not “at all” surprised Pistorius was found not guilty of knowingly shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the middle of the night while she was in the bathroom.
The double-amputee Olympic champion, known as the Blade Runner, claims he fired shots into the locked bathroom believing a burglar had broken into his home. The prosecution alleged Pistorius killed Steenkamp in a fit of rage over an argument they had the night before.
“To find someone guilty of the murder charge that was alleged against Mr. Pistorius, the prosecutor has to prove a specific intention to commit a murder, which is difficult under circumstances which, at best, are cloudy,” says Rubel.
The judge’s findings were also predictable given the healthy nature of Pistorius and Steenkamp’s relationship save the argument they had the night before the shooting says criminal law specialist Joseph Neuberger.
“It’s not a surprise that he’s acquitted of the premeditation, which is our equivalent of first-degree murder,” he says.
But Pistorius isn’t completely off the hook. According to Reuters, South African Judge Thokozile Masipa adjourned seconds after saying key elements of a finding of culpable homicide were satisfied but without rendering a judgment.
“I am of the view that the accused acted too hastily and used excessive force. It is clear that his conduct was negligent,” Masipa told the packed courtroom before adjourning until Friday. She also said he had not acted “reasonably.”
Neuberger says a lesser homicide conviction is a strong possibility in this case.
“It seems really to be quite a stretch that he thought some burglar had walked in and he just shot the burglar without even paying any attention to who it was or what they were doing. So I think given the evidence, he runs a very real risk of being convicted of something less than the first-degree murder charge,” he says.
Rubel says the case has been interesting to watch from Canada given the difference in procedure even among common law countries.
“I actually found it interesting to note how very different the procedures are, the evidence rulings are, and frankly, the fact that in South Africa there’s no jury trial,” he says.
“The type of evidence which is admissible in South Africa in relation to character evidence and previous interactions with the law seems to be much greater than what would be admissible in Canadian law.”
Counsel in South Africa also “seems to have a practice of injecting much more comment on the evidence . . . than would be appropriate in our very fair system,” adds Rubel.
Rubel also noted it can be challenging to get a fair process for a famous client.
“Everyone is bending over backwards to show that this person is not being given any special favours because of who they are,” he says. “Because of the tremendous amount of public attention, people are less likely to give [famous] people the benefit of the doubt.”