Many victims in Oscar’s trial, experts say

Crime & Courts

Pretoria - Reeva Steenkamp is gone. But her death has left a number of living victims in its wake.

Those sitting on the left side of the courtroom with their matching blonde hair and deadpan faces lost a daughter and sister. But those on the right, a mass of elegant family members, have lost the ability to continue with their lives.

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June Steenkamp, mother of Reeva Steenkamp, looks on at the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria. Photo: Marco LongariCarl Pistorius, centre, attends his brother's murder trial  at the High Court in Pretoria. Picture: Kim Ludbrook

Every day in court, the Pistorius family take each blow from prosecutor Gerrie Nel as a blow to themselves. They provide tissues, hugs and muttered prayers.

Professor Robert Peacock, criminologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and vice-president of the World Society of Victimology, says of the families of the accused

: “There is a sense that you cannot continue with your life. They feel that everything is sort of in limbo, and that creates anxiety.”

And Professor Elrena van der Spuy of UCT’s department of public law asks: “Where does one draw the line between who is the proper victim?”

She says that in the past 15 years, victims have been placed more centrally in the country’s court system, and this includes families.

This is a change from when the State took over the case and it became solely between itself and the accused, while the victim was sidelined.

The trial is a highly traumatic event for both the accused and the victim’s families.

The courtroom provides an emotive stage on which solidarity and loyalties can play themselves out.

The victim’s family will want justice, while the accused’s family will often refuse to believe their relative is responsible, sometimes even after a guilty verdict has been handed down.

“Under circumstances of need, there is an almost natural affinity to blood ties, and the emotional support may transfer into feelings that the accused is not guilty,” says Van der Spuy.

“These things are not necessarily rational.”

The adversarial nature of the legal system, which pits one against the other, could extend to sets of families facing off against each other.

“Look how South Africans are choosing sides – why would not families choose sides?” asks Van der Spuy.

But the family of the accused often present a strange conundrum.

Families by definition function as a support system, but a typical South African offender’s circumstances are often characterised by dysfunctional and broken family circumstances.

“Due to the very nature of crime and victims, we are dealing with a family who are at risk already,” says Peacock.

This trial has already stretched over a year. But many other accused may wait three or four years before judgment, he adds.

An ordinary awaiting-trial accused mayy often spend that time in prison because there is no stable home for them to be allowed to go to if bail is granted.

Peacock adds that the Steenkamps would probably feel vulnerable because their pain was being put to public scrutiny.

“The family must be traumatised, and the trial will re-enact that trauma.”

Peacock notes that the victim’s family members will be seeking closure from the proceedings.

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