Huffpost Crime
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Steven Brill Headshot

Oscar Pistorius and the Criminal Justice System at Work

Posted: Updated:

What exactly happened on the night of when Oscar Pistorius' finance, Reeva Steenkamp, was found dead in her bathroom and Mr. Pistorius was found with a loaded pistol in his possession. The South African prosecutor claims that as a result of a domestic dispute, Mr. Pistorius shot her with the intention to kill. Mr. Pistorius denies these allegations and claims that he thought an intruder had entered his home so he shot him though the bathroom door. He claims that he believed his fiancé -- the deceased -- was still in her bed when he fired the shots.

So now what? Here are two completely different accounts of what occurred. One account makes him guilty of murder -- the other completely innocent. But indeed someone is dead as a result of a gunshot, so the South African prosecutor's office investigated and felt a crime was committed.

But the critical question now is how can we get to the bottom of it? The bathroom door was closed. No one else was present. There were no witnesses. No confessions. The only other person present at the scene is dead. So, what can be done? A criminal trial, that's what.

On a purely academic level, the Oscar Pistorius trial is a perfect example of why we need the strong and fair justice system that will allow society to search for the truth of what happened that night. It is phenomenal how we take it for granted, but it is truly amazing how the justice system and criminal process -- which culminates with a criminal trial - is the only logical and effective way of getting as close to the truth as possible.

Indeed, I know, this is South Africa, not the American justice system. But the South African system of justice is very similar to ours. Most importantly the idea that the defendant is presumed innocent and the burden of proof is on the government to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. So, when one steps back, it is truly awesome to think how the justice system and rules of evidence will accomplish the mission of determining the facts of the night in question.

We all know how the trial will generally go. We have seen it enough on TV and in the movies. I read that the trial expects to see in excess of 200 witnesses with several exhibits as well. Experts, lay witnesses, police officers, medical witnesses, character witness are all on deck.

The jury will have the job to sift through it all in order to determine the credibility of each of the witnesses.; to compare their prior statements to the ones at trial; to size them up and observe their demeanor on the witness stand; to evaluate the logic of content of their testimony; to evaluate the interest and biases of each witness; and to use their own powers of common sense in their every-day affairs.

A tall order to say the least. Let's not forget that a woman is dead, and an accused man's life is hanging the balance. But there is simply no better way to get to the bottom of what happened on that night. And one day this trial will end. And when it does, the jury will get all of the evidence, all of the testimony and, of course, all of the law as explained by the judge, in order to make that final determination of whether the government has proven all of the elements of each crime charged against Mr. Pistorius beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is easy to take for granted how remarkable the criminal process is. It takes cases like these to show how there is no fairer and more effective way.

If you like what you read, and would like to follow my firm, please like our Sullivan Brill, LLP Facebook page. You can also email me at steven.brill@sullivanbrill.com.