Pistorius trial: The legal principles that will decide the case

Many people have been treating the bail hearing of Oscar Pistorius as if it were a trial, jumping to conclusions about whether he will be found guilty of murder based on the (often untested) allegations made by both sides at this hearing. But those who think they know what the outcome of this trial will be, are probably still going to change their minds several times before the trial is over. The only thing we can be relatively certain of is that specific legal principles will play a decisive role in this trial. It might be helpful to familiarise yourself with these principles before pontificating on the outcome of the trial writes PIERRE DE VOS

Based on the version of events provided by Pistorius and his lawyers at the bail hearing, the disputed element of the crime will be fault. You can only be found guilty of murder if you unlawfully and intentionally killed another person. You can be found guilty of culpable homicide if you unlawfully and negligently killed another person.

There is no dispute that the killing of Reeva Steenkamp was unlawful as it would be impossible to argue that Pistorius acted in self-defence (or private defence, as it is known in law). You can only rely on self-defence to exclude unlawfulness if an attack on your life (or the life of another), on your property or other similar interest has commenced or is imminent. This is an objective test, so where no attack actually occurred, one cannot rely on self-defence to justify the killing of another person, which you thought was necessary to defend yourself. No such attack occurred or was imminent in this case. (Whether the common law should be developed in line with the values in the Constitution to restrict the right to kill others in defence of your property, is an interesting question, which I cannot discuss here.)

Editor's Comment
Has life become worthless?

As many wondered what wrong the young boy could have done to end up killed, it emerged that his own cousin was a suspect in the murder after he claimed P50,000 from Botswana Life. Thato Tsametse, who was last week sentenced to death for the murder of his cousin, had reportedly taken out two Mmoloki Funeral Covers valued at P25,000 each.Over the years, the media has been covering the murder case, and some revelation has come up that certain...

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