By Margaret Matthews, Senior Columnist
Having worked in a law firm previously, I have been intrigued by criminal law; in particular, the evidence put before the courts by way of the witnesses who were present at the crime scene, and the police investigation. The fate of the accused lies in the verdict handed down by the judge—which at times can be unpredictable—after considering all the evidence and circumstances of the case.
In the Oscar Pistorius trial, Judge Masipa based her decision on her findings that “the state has not proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of premeditated murder” and ruled that Pistorius will be convicted of culpable homicide—the equivalent of manslaughter. The leniency of Judge Masipa has caused unease within the legal profession.
Which brings us to the question of, how does a judge decide on whether a suspect is guilty or not guilty? It varies in each case, depending on the judge who presides at the trial, and if there is a jury as well. South Africa does not have jury trials and neither do they have the death penalty.
I have personally attended the preliminary hearings of Robert Pickton, the notorious serial killer who took the lives of 26 women. While all the evidence and body parts of the women he killed were retrieved from his pig farm, Pickton denied killing any of them. How does the legal system evaluate such untruths when there is all the evidence that the accused is guilty? In Pickton’s case, the judge ruled that he was guilty of several murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in a federal penitentiary, with no possibility of parole for 25 years.
On the other side of the coin, in a few instances, innocent people were wrongfully accused and sent to their death, while years later, much to the chagrin of the courts, it was discovered that another person was the actual murderer. Murderer, guilty or not, is a life-changing label to put on someone.
Capital punishment was abolished by the late Prime Minister Trudeau, a change which is still upheld throughout Canada. Some States in the US still have the death penalty though, where a lethal injection is administered to the convicted murderer.
Someone who takes another’s life is a murderer, and capital punishment or not, the person will still be a murderer. There is no escaping that fact.