Remorse is one of the major obstacles said to stand between Chris Hani's killer Janusz Walus and his bid for freedom. File picture: Cobus Bodenstein/AP
Last week I gave my beloved dog a slap on the backside for snapping at the new puppy. I felt terrible about it, especially when he looked at me with, what I believe to be, true remorse.

It reminded me of how often remorse is a debatable issue in court, one which came under the spotlight again recently.

It is an issue with which judges have struggled for as long as I can remember. The question is always whether when an accused claims remorse, it is genuine or self-serving of their interests.

Sometimes one must simply accept the person’s word, especially if it goes hand in hand with a display of remorse.

Remorse is never a defence, but it can be vital to finding mitigating circumstances warranting a lesser sentence in the case of a criminal trial.

In probably one of the best known illustrations, the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, in re-sentencing Oscar Pistorius for the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, found that he did not take the court into his confidence during sentencing proceedings and thus displayed a lack of remorse.

This resulted in the court finding no mitigation during sentencing.

This was also the case earlier this month, when Rehithile Matjane was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering her two small sons by shooting them in the head. The mother blamed her actions on depression and medication she was taking.

She said she had true remorse for her actions, but in sentencing her, Judge Hans Fabricius cited an appeal court judgment, where it was said that “genuine contrition can only come from an appreciation and acknowledgement of the extent of one’s error”.

“In order for remorse to be a valid consideration, the penitence must be sincere and the accused must take the court fully in his or her confidence.”

True remorse is also one of the major obstacles said to stand between Janusz Walus and his bid for freedom.

He has spent 25 years of his life sentence behind bars for the 1993 killing of SACP leader Chris Hani. He has been struggling since 2011 to be released on parole and return to his homeland.

The Hani family are vehemently opposing his release on the grounds that he does not have true remorse. One of their arguments is that Walus did not play open cards as to who gave the instructions for Hani to be killed.

Justice Minister Michael Masutha and the Hani family questioned why Walus was only now choosing to say he had remorse about the murder.

The family further argued that while he may be sorry for depriving widow Limpho Hani of a husband and her children of a father, he was not remorseful for killing “Hani, the communist”.

During previous parole hearings, Walus has repeatedly said he had remorse and called on the Hani family to meet him on several occasions. When they refused, he wrote several letters in which he expressed his remorse.

Neither the minister nor the family accepted this and it was argued in court last week that Walus’s display of remorse was self-serving, as he knew he had no chance of ever being released if he did not express remorse.

This prompted Judge Selby Baqwa to question “how long will this record have to play over and over”. He is still due to deliver his judgment on whether Walus indeed displayed remorse or whether it is all an act - a judgment for which he will need the wisdom of Solomon.

Accepting the remorse displayed, however, proved an easier task for three judges - including Deputy Judge President Aubrey Ledwaba - last week.

They all accepted that the four previously axed advocates displayed true remorse for their actions in over-charging the Road Accident Fund (RAF) and readmitted them to the profession.

The judges said true remorse was central to their re-admittance.

The General Council of the Bar applied for their names to be removed from the roll of advocates in 2011.

The court granted the order, saying their greed had led them to be a disgrace to the profession.

The four said they had learnt their lesson. They did not mince their words when they described their remorse. Said one: “My every living moment is filled with remorse and regret.”

Another described the injury he had done, as “that gnawing feeling experienced in your conscience and the gnashing of teeth when you know that you have done wrong”.

The word remorse comes from the Latin word “ re-again” and “mordere” - to bite. Remorse revisits and stays with you, one advocate said. Regret, on the other hand, is about the inconvenience felt about the negative impact the circumstances may have on one.

Whether the offender is sincerely remorseful will always remain a contentious issue.

* Zelda Venter is a senior court writer for Pretoria News.