Justice can be a fickle business particularly in the realm of criminal law. As members of the public, generally, we are only privy to criminal cases that capture the media’s attention. When that happens, we inevitably weigh in. We see photos of the children abducted or the spouse killed; we see footage of the family members of either the victims or the alleged perpetrators entangled in a particular crime; we form our own opinions about what really happened and what ought to happen next.
It is not at all unusual for there to be a disparity between what collectively the court of public opinion might deem appropriate in any case and what a court of law actually finds. A complex web of rules, precedents and statutes dictate, limit and shape how and what any court is capable of delivering. This complexity is the price we must pay for a principled legal system.
Occasionally, however, principled legal systems yield results that, even with an acceptance and understanding of the complexity of such a system, are difficult to fathom. And so it is with Oscar Pistorius.
Last week a South African court determined the famous athlete was guilty of the equivalent of manslaughter; he was acquitted of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. He is due to be sentenced in October.
The court of public opinion is never the appropriate forum for determining the fate of an individual charged with a crime. Legal systems exist to ensure individuals – guilty or innocent — are afforded far more objectivity, protection and consistency than that. I accept and support that. I also recognise that I am not remotely qualified to comment on the intricacies of South Africa’s body of criminal law.
But there is something about the Pistorius verdict that I cannot accept or support and it goes beyond technicalities and extends beyond South Africa. The Pistorius verdict is not sensational in my mind because of hearsay or innuendo. It is sensational because he shot four bullets, from close range, into a bathroom, in which another person was known to be present. The person present was his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and she died almost instantly. Shortly before this neighbours heard a female’s “terrified scream”.
The judge determined Pistorius’ actions were negligent but didn’t accept that he thought it was Steenkamp inside. I sincerely hope that was the case but based on the evidence presented it seems a generous finding.
Throughout the trial evidence revealed that Steenkamp was frightened of Pistorius. Three weeks before she was killed she sent him this text message: “I’m scared of you sometimes and how you snap at me and of how you will react to me.”
Earlier she said she felt “attacked” and “needed protection” from him.
These messages obviously do not constitute proof that Pistorius intended to kill Steenkamp but it’s difficult to dismiss given the outcome. And regardless of his innocence or guilt of murder, it’s impossible to accept Judge Thokozile Masipa’s categorisation of these exchanges.
“Normal relationships are dynamic and unpredictable most of the time, and human beings are fickle.”
That is certainly true but intimidation and fear are not normal. Being “scared” of a partner is not normal. Feeling that you need “protecting” from your own partner is not normal. But perhaps the devastating truth is that it is normal and it will remain normal for as long as we choose to accept it.
In 2009 three women a day were killed by a partner in South Africa according to anti-violence organisation Gun Free South Africa. The World Health Organisation estimates that 60,000 women and children in the country are victims of such violence every month.
Very few of these cases ever see the light of day which helps to perpetuate the shame that keeps other victims silent. If they don’t see or hear about other victims they believe they’re alone.
When a case does see the light of day, where it captures the world’s attention for over a year and there is clear evidence of intimidation and fear and a judge accepts that as symptoms of a “normal relationship”? It’s devastating.
Because intimidation and fear are part and parcel with the abuse – physical, emotional and financial – that domestic violence entails. Symptoms that need to be openly challenged, not tacitly accepted. A substantial part of the challenge in dismantling this subversive problem is the fact it happens behind closed doors. Eradicating domestic violence requires a resolute and public rejection of the attitudes and behaviours that enable and excuse it.
This is prescient in Australia, where more than 23% of women have experienced domestic or family violence, according to ABS statistics. Today VicHealth has released the findings from a survey of 17,500 Australianscalled National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women 2013, the third of its kind.
Alarmingly, it seems a number of Australians are ready to excuse rapists and men who control, intimidate, bash and kill women and many apportion blame to the victim. One in five Australians agree that a woman is partly responsible for rape if she is intoxicated, whilst one in six support the notion that women say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’.
“We are really concerned about the number of people – men and women – who still believe that rape and physical violence are justifiable, and that women are often partly to blame,” VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said. “A culture that excuses rape and violence is one that allows it to happen.”
Fortunately most people surveyed understood that domestic violence was a crime and that women were far more likely to be victims and almost everyone surveyed said they’d intervene if a woman they knew was the target of violence.
“What we’re seeing is more people who now understand that violence is more than a bruised eye or broken bones,” Rechter said.
The report concludes that above all else, the main influence on people’s attitudes to violence against women was their understanding of the issue and how supportive they were of gender equality. The more they subscribe to conservative stereotypes about men and women, the more likely they were to excuse, trivialise or justify violent behaviour.
The fact that Reeva Steenkamp, a talented and capable young woman, is dead is undeniably tragic. The fact part of her legacy is not a judge using an opportunity — while the world was watching — to publicly reject a dynamic of fear and intimidation effected by a famous young man in his personal relationship, compounds it. I fear the most devastating consequence of the Pistorius judgement is not that he was acquitted of murder but that his conduct within his personal relationship was categorised as normal.