Friday, 12 September 2014

Thokozile Masipa: above all, a fine judge

There’s been a lot of talk about the judge in the Oscar Pistorius case, Thokozile Masipa.
A remarkable judge
A woman sitting as judge in such a high profile case. Today, that’s not so remarkable, though not many years ago it would have been.

A black judge presiding over the trial of a white celebrity. In South Africa. That remains remarkable even today. South Africa took its first stumbling steps towards racial equality only in the 1990s. Masipa sitting in judgement over Pistorius is something of a milestone.

But the quality of Masipa
’s that hasn’t attracted anything like enough attention, is that she’s an excellent judge. Black or white, man or woman, anywhere aspiring to democracy needs all the Masipas it can get.

Yesterday, Masipa acquitted Pistorius of murder (there was no jury). That’s a judgement that has shocked a great many people.

And yet, what she pointed out was that much of the evidence against Pistorius was hearsay. Witnesses had testified to hearing screams, but it was impossible to rule out that it was Pistorius himself screaming. Angry texts exchanged by the couple only revealed how human relationships fluctuate and did not prove murderous intent. Overall, she felt that the prosecution had simply not proved its case “beyond reasonable doubt”, and therefore the charge could not be made to stick.

In those words, Masipa spoke out for an essential and threatened principle. In Britain today presumption of innocence is in jeopardy. Those who give way to terror in the face of terrorism, not realising that this gives the terrorists their greatest victory, have called for people suspected of fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East, to have to clear their own name.

Masipa’s judgement restates the opposite view. She didn’t say Pistorius was innocent of murder. She said that the prosecution had failed to prove him guilty, and that’s all it takes for an acquittal. The prosecution has the police on its side and the colossal means of the state. If it can’t convince a reasonable person of its case, which is what proof beyond reasonable doubt means, then its case must fail.

Oscar Pistorius in happier times
This was shocking only to those who suspect, as surely a great many of us do, that Pistorius deliberately killed his girlfriend and and believe that’s enough to convict him. Masipa has replied categorically, “no, it isn’t.”

She did also go on to accuse him of being negligent by firing four shots through a locked door without even establishing who was behind it.

Today she confirmed that his negligence was criminal, when she convicted him of culpable homicide. That was a judgement as clear-sighted as yesterday’s. Pistorius doesn’t deny he fired the shots that killed Steenkamp. What Masipa has now said is that by doing so he behaved with disregard for human life, whether or not he knew who was behind the door. That has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt, and so it has led to his conviction.

Masipa got it exactly right. With so many apparently ready, even enthusiastic, for many of these things to be done wrong, that’s far more important than the immediate matter of the Pistorius case. It’s a beacon to nations that would be free.

And that’s what really matters about Thokozile Masipa.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I welcomed a black woman judge under the circumstances, but I cannot see (admittedly I did not follow the case on a day by day basis) how someone who felt threatened by a closed door could not have been guilty, at least of dolls eventualis.