Oscar trial judge appoints assessors
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Pretoria - The fate of blade runner Oscar Pistorius will not entirely lie in the hands of Judge Thokozile Masipa. She has appointed two assessors to assist her.
While the Pretoria News confirmed that two assessors had been appointed to flank her when the trial starts on March 3 in the Pretoria High Court, the judge remained mum on who they are.
According to a source close to the case, the judge is of the opinion that the media would get the information once the trial has started and that she is not prepared to say anything at this stage.
While she had been inundated with requests by the media for interviews, the stately but clearly stern judge refused this, or to allow a copy of her CV to be given to the media. The judge also refuses to have pictures of her taken. She was the second black woman to be appointed a judge in South Africa after Yvonne Mokgoro.
An expert said the significance of two assessors was that Pistorius’s fate and/or conviction could ultimately lie in their hands, if there was a majority finding on the facts of the case.
A criminal procedure law expert at the University of Pretoria, Professor Annette van der Merwe, explained that in terms of South African law, the two assessors could “overrule” the judge when it comes to a verdict on the facts, based on the majority doctrine.
This means that if the two assessors, for example, rule in favour of murder, or the judge and one assessor rule as such, that verdict will be the accepted one. The same applies for when two of them rule in favour of an acquittal.
Van der Merwe explained that only the judge could have the last say when it comes to decisions in law. “If Pistorius’s counsel applies for a discharge (acquittal) of his client at the end of the State’s case, the judge alone will decide on this.”
Van der Merwe said the question of sentence was also one decided by a judge. “It is the duty of the judge to decide alone on a suitable sentence, although it is not uncommon that presiding officers do sometimes discuss a sentence with assessors. In high court trials, judges must always consider whether to appoint assessors or not. Although the final decision in this regard lies with the judge, the facts of a case as set out in the indictment will play a role. In my opinion it was a very wise decision to appoint assessors in this case,” Van der Merwe said.
It is up to the judge to decide who to appoint and it is normally skilled people in law, such as advocates, retired magistrates, attorneys or professors in law.
Van der Merwe said where it was an intricate case, based on the evidence of an array of expert witnesses, as in the Pistorius matter, it could be possible that one of the assessors is qualified in an expert field relating to the case.
“Assessors have to be absolutely impartial, else it could be regarded as an irregularity in a case.”
The trial is due to be heard in the same courtroom where the Boeremag accused stood trial for more than a decade.
Leader of the Pistorius prosecution team, Gerrie Nel and Andrea Johnson, who will assist him, last week checked out the logistics.
It is expected to be a visual trial, with TV screens set up in court to be used during evidence and to show some of the thousands of pictures taken at the scene of the shooting.
Pistorius shot dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29, on February 14 last year through a locked bathroom door at his home. He said he mistook her for an intruder.