Sunday 11 December 2016

TV trials and how justice became a reality show

Cameras in courts pose real questions for the justice system, according to John Carlin, whose book on Oscar Pistorius is the definitive account

Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30

Taking a stand: Oscar Pistorius in a Pretoria courtroom.
Taking a stand: Oscar Pistorius in a Pretoria courtroom.
Biographer John Carlin.

What was going through the mind of "blade-runner" Oscar Pistorius when he fired four times at a locked toilet door at his home in Pretoria in February 2013? His girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was on the other side and died from her injuries. Whether Pistorius had intended to kill her is a question that has swirled ever since - one not even his biographer, John Carlin, feels he can answer with certainty.

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"In the end only God really knows," says Carlin, an esteemed sports and current affairs writer whose Chase Your Shadow: The Trials of Oscar Pistorius is considered the definitive account of the athlete's rise and fall.

"The number of people who have asked me that question, you can't imagine. In the end, I shrug my shoulders and say, 'I do not know'. I'm sure the judge does not know… Maybe even Pistorius doesn't know. The mind can play tricks on people."

Pistorius became a global icon after overcoming the loss of his legs as an infant to compete in the Olympics. In South Africa he was more than a superstar - he was the modern face of a country determined to paint itself as progressive and ambitious.

Yet his trial was arguably the greatest legal circus since OJ Simpson. The proceedings were broadcast from Pretoria around the world, with Sky in the UK and ESPN in the United States carrying the case live. The extent to which media saturation impacted on Pistorius receiving a fair hearing is a subject Carlin will address when he speaks to the Bar Council of Ireland tomorrow.

"I am going to raise the issue of whether the live televising of a court case makes for better or worse justice. I'm not going to come up with an answer myself. I'm just going to raise the issues and tell the story."

It was the prosecution rather than the defence that pushed for the case to be televised. With the entire world watching, Carlin suspects the prosecutors were in the mood for grandstanding. Perhaps that is why they brought the most serious charge possible against Pistorius: that he had premeditatedly killed Steenkamp (as opposed to recklessly shooting through the door, not knowing who was on the other side). This was rejected by the judge in favour of the South African version of manslaughter, though on appeal the conviction was upgraded to the equivalent of second degree murder (still a notch down from the prosecutor's original charges). Pistorius insists he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder and was acting in self-defence.

"My sense was that the main prosecuting lawyer rather enjoyed the opportunity to become a worldwide celebrity," says Carlin. "My impression is that he enjoyed the showmanship of it all - being in the public eye. In retrospect he would possibly grudgingly agree that he had overstepped the mark and became too ambitious in going for the charge of all-out murder. In other words, 'murder one'. Had he gone for 'murder two' he would have probably gotten that at the first try."

The debate over cameras in the courtroom has been reignited in this part of the world after the UK amended its laws to allow limited broadcasts from certain appeal courts. Things are rather different here. There is no law against cameras in court rooms. Instead, a convention has developed over decades prohibiting broadcast of trials (though in 2014 it was confirmed that journalists were free to send live Tweets from cases they were covering).

Adding frisson to the conversation is the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson trial and the new television series American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson. The OJ case was a warning that justice served in public could, if handled wrongly, descend into glorified reality television.

Conversely the Netflix true crime hit Making A Murderer offered a sober plea in favour of cameras in the court-room. Here, the documentary makers utilised trial footage to present the argument that Steven Avery had been stitched up for a murder he did not commit. If the cameras cheapened the OJ hearings, for Avery they bore crucial witness to an apparent travesty of justice.

"It is interesting that the OJ Simpson true crime drama is coming out 20 years after the fact," says Carlin, whose book about the Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup was adapted as Invictus by Clint Eastwood. "I suspect the Pistorius case would offer ripe material for something similar at some point."

John Carlin will speak tomorrow at the Bar of Ireland conference on the theme 'Trial By Media'

Irish Independent

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