A look at South Africa's justice system

From the contentious bail hearing now taking place to a trial and possible sentencing, Oscar Pistorius’ must now navigate South Africa’s legal system following charges he murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

PRETORIA, South Africa – Below, a look at the justice system in South Africa and what Oscar Pistorius faces after the double-amputee Olympic athlete was charged with premeditated murder in the Feb. 14 shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp:


The bail hearing in the Pistorius case represents a mini-trial to determine if he will remain in custody until a trial or can be freed with conditions. Defense lawyers offered written statements from the athlete and his friends to state their case. By offering the affidavits, the defense was able to enter the evidence without having to put their emotional client, who has broken down weeping a number of times in court, on the stand. Prosecutors offered their own version of events and called the lead police investigator, Detective Warrant Officer Hilton Botha, to give testimony. But by putting Botha on the stand, they opened him up to detailed cross-examination by Pistorius' lead defense lawyer, Barry Roux. Botha has since been dropped from the case.


Pistorius faces the harshest bail requirements in South African law after the judge agreed with the prosecution's premeditated murder charge for the purposes of bail. Pistorius' lawyers must prove there is an "exceptional" reason to have him freed before trial. They also have to show that he doesn't represent a flight risk, that he will not intimidate witnesses and that he won't commit acts of violence or encourage others to do so. If Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair decides Pistorius might violate any of those terms, he can order him held until trial. If bail is denied, Pistorius can immediately appeal to a higher court. Pistorius is currently being held in Pretoria's Brooklyn police station, but those denied bail typically go to a prison.


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South Africa is one of only a few countries in the world that that has a court system with roots in Roman-Dutch law. Because of this, those appearing in criminal trials do not have the option of a jury trial, which is common in the United States and other countries. Instead, a single judge will hear the entire case and then rule on a person's guilt or innocence. The judge can be assisted by two advisers during the trial. Those advisers generally offer assistance in looking at the more technical aspects of the evidence given at trial. If found guilty, a person can later appeal the ruling or the sentence they receive.


Premeditated murder, which Pistorius is charged with, can carry a sentence of life in prison. There is no death penalty in South Africa. A lesser murder charge carries a sentence of 15 years to life. Pistorius could still see his charge downgraded to culpable homicide, meaning that he unintentionally killed Steenkamp, which is what he claims. A conviction on that charge carries much less time in prison.


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