Friday, December 4, 2015
In prior blogs (here and here) we discussed both the trial of Oscar Pistorius, in South Africa, for the death of his girlfriend, and then the verdict, which found Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide, that is, what we in the United States would call manslaughter, but not guilty of murder. We commented, among other things, about the experience of seeing a single judge rendering a verdict (in which two invisible lay assessors joined), and of hearing a detailed statement of reasons – two experiences we rarely (as to the first) or never (as to the second) have in the United States. This week, the Supreme Court of Appeal in South Africa entertained the prosecution’s appeal from that verdict and reversed it. The court convicted Pistorius of murder instead: a third unheard phenomenon in the US criminal justice system.
The appellate court held that the trial court had incorrectly applied the doctrine of dolus eventualis, which supports a murder conviction based, in essence, on recklessness, by concluding that because the defendant did not know who he was shooting at (error in objecto), he could not have understood that death was likely to follow. The court explained that “the accused’s incorrect appreciation as to who was in the cubicle [in which he fired the fatal shots] is not determinative of whether he had the requisite criminal intent.” The court also held that the trial court had incorrectly applied the law on circumstantial evidence by ignoring some of the relevant evidence.
As the Supreme Court of Appeal noted in the opening sentence of its opinion, “[t]his case involves a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions;…”.
- Lissa Griffin, South Africa: Reflections on the Pistorius Trial, Comparative Law Prof Blog (Apr. 10, 2014).
- Lissa Griffin, The Pistorius Verdict, Comparative Law Prof Blog (Sept. 12, 2014).
- Director of Public Prosecutions, Gauteng v. Pistorius (96/2015)  ZASCA 204 (3 Dec. 2015) (S. Afr.) (Court’s PDF).