Getting away with murder?

Getting away with murder?


The desire to see justice is overwhelming for most people.

In the trial of Oscar Pistorius, we find ourselves looking down the unmistakable darkness of a double barrelled shotgun. In the left barrel, is the South African criminal justice system, which even by British standards seems eccentric, and down the right, we see all the modern trappings of a society fixated with celebrities and their otherworldly lives.

During the first trial of Oscar Pistorius Judge Thokozile Masipa gave the runner a culpable homicide sentence and five years. After being told to rethink her decision when the ruling was overturned and changed to murder, the Judge decided that there were “substantial and compelling circumstances” that allowed her to deviate from the prescribed 15-year minimum sentence for murder. It is estimated that he will have to serve a minimum of 2-4 years in the hospital wing of the Kgosi Mampuru II jail.

While discussing the case with my brother, who I think, like most people, has become too invested in the outcome of trial, he said the words: “a life for a life.” Admittedly, he meant a life sentence, but the implication is still there. If you take a life, you should pay for it. You will not rehabilitate an act of such wild stupidity, which was most likely driven by fear or anger, by putting the disabled antagonist into one of the world’s most violent prisons.

The desire to see justice is overwhelming for most people. However, I have always seen prisons differently. 1 in 5 prisoners are believed to be dyslexic, with around 50% suffering from low literacy and education. Nearly ¼ of male prisoners admit to having suffered from depression or anxiety in prison, with over 20% claiming to have attempted suicide.

‘Years in Prison’ is not a very valuable measure of punishment in my estimation. It appears to be a place to hide the hundreds of thousands of undesirables that our righteous sense of revenge prevents us from handing over to the NHS. I’m not at all in favour of turn the other cheek, but at some stage there has to be a line between willful evil, mistake, and a deterministic mental condition. 

Oscar Pistorius on the cover of Time Magazine 2013 / Image by WP:NFCC#4

Oscar Pistorius on the cover of Time Magazine 2013 / Image by WP:NFCC#4

I am convinced that the phenomenology of disability plays a major part in this case. It is understandably very difficult for someone like me, a fit and able man, to imagine the fear a double amputee would feel if they believed there was an intruder in their home. Likewise, while living in South East London doesn’t preclude me from worrying that my home may be broken into, I can hardly claim to know what it is like to live in a South African compound/home.

Nevertheless, it is curious that I now find myself listening to friend’s claiming that Oscar Pistorius is just another case of “white privilege.” When I was growing up being disabled almost always qualified you to be a protected class. For obvious reasons, a white disabled person was somewhat shielded from the accusation that they had “had everything easy”.

How one can distinguish between culpable homicide and murder in a case like this is beyond me. If he made a mistake that anybody, disabled or not, could have made then the outcome of the case has to reflect the severity of the mistake. Whereas if, as the Judge said, Pistorius’ disability created “substantial and compelling circumstances” then it may be fair to say, despite the fact he took a life, he was not in control of all his most culpable faculties. After all, for years people have been arguing that in America gun control is needed to stem the tide of manics going on rampages.

But then even if we can exclude the effects of “identity politics”, would Pistorius have received the same sentence if he wasn’t a celebrity?

This is where the defence of Mr Pistorius runs headlong into a rather nasty metaphor involving a rather large bus. Shooting a gun into a door without knowing who or what is behind it is the very height of criminal recklessness. Even the most hardened ‘merican NRA nut would deride someone for shooting bullets at something you cannot see. Whether or not he killed his girlfriend through stupidity is ultimately irrelevant. While we all act unpredictably when we are afraid, but I still wouldn’t want someone who acted as dangerously and irrationally as him to be free to walk the streets near my home.