As you are likely aware by this time, Olympian Oscar Pistorius has been found not guilty of murder. Instead, the judge found that he had committed “culpable homicide.” Many are shocked by this decision, including Prosecutor Gerrie Nel, who has apparently already begun working on an appeal of the judge’s decision, according to The Guardian’s article “Oscar Pistorius verdict: judgment seemed to support charge of ‘dolus eventualis.’” After all, there was no dispute that Pistorius aimed four shots into the closed bathroom door in his own home, and those bullets ended up killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.
United States Versus South African Legal System
The South African legal system is different than that of the United States, and the charges, alone, are part of what contributes to the international outrage—we hear you saying it right now: come on, the guy clearly murdered someone! You can’t just go around shooting at things! And you’re right, but could the judge be right, too?
How could this not be “murder”? The South African legal system classifies murder similarly to the way we classify first degree murder: the intentional killing of another human being. The intent is key here: it’s that you have to realize that what you’re doing is designed to end someone else’s life. So the question becomes, did Pistorius fire the shots intending to kill whoever/whatever was behind the door? Judge Masipa didn’t think so, stating: “The evidence failed to prove the accused had intention [to kill]. The accused had the intention to shoot at the person behind the door, not to kill.”
Dolus eventualis, murder with indirect intention, is knowing that whatever you’re doing could kill someone, but intentionally committing that action anyway. This is where the controversy has exploded: Pistorius was acquitted on this charge, too, even though his presentation was clear that he knew there was someone behind the bathroom door and fired the shots into it anyway. Did Pistorius know that this could have killed someone? “The [South African] legal fraternity are concerned that the test for dolus eventualis may have been applied incorrectly. The judge seems to have concentrated on the question of whether it was Reeva,” comments Emma Sadleir, a legal expert who has been watching this case closely, in The Guardian’s article “Oscar Pistorius verdict questioned by South African legal experts.”
Instead, Judge Masipa found Pistorius guilty of “culpable homicide,” similar to our manslaughter statutes: committing an action with a disregard as to the foreseeable consequences, which could include the death of a person. She stated: “Clearly he did not subjectively foresee this as a possibility that he would kill the person behind the door—let alone the deceased—as he thought she was in the bedroom.” Maybe she found that it was a mistake—an undeniably stupid and thoughtless mistake—bolstered by his fears and temper.
Inevitably, the questions are coming up: did Pistorius get some kind of special treatment because of his celebrity status? Was the Washington Post right in calling him South Africa’s OJ Simpson? Or is it a problem with South Africa’s position on violence against women, as noted by BBC’s article “Oscar Pistorius verdicts divide South Africa”? Or was the evidence truly not convincing?
Without sitting through the trial and hearing all of the evidence, it’s hard for us to say whether the judge got it right or not. After all, the rules here in the United States demand that a person remain innocent until proven guilty. One thing is clear: this case and its ramifications are far from over.