PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — A female judge will ultimately decide Oscar Pistorius’ fate and pronounce him innocent or guilty of murder in his girlfriend’s shooting death on Valentine’s Day last year. South Africa has no trial by jury meaning Judge Thokozile Masipa will have the final say in the blockbuster court case. A look at the judge and some other main players in the Pistorius trial:
Judge Thokozile Masipa will preside over the biggest and most closely-watched case in her career when Pistorius goes on trial for murder in Reeva Steenkamp’s shooting death. Masipa has 15 years’ experience as a judge, but was once a reporter with a South African newspaper before turning to law. Her appointment to oversee and ultimately judge Pistorius’ case will satisfy both prosecution and defense, legal experts say, because of her reputation for being unwaveringly fair. She was the second black woman to be appointed a judge in South Africa, according to the South African Press Association.
While she has become a figure of intense interest, South Africa’s department of justice has warned reporters not to attempt to contact her during Pistorius’ trial. Masipa will be aided by two assessors whom she has appointed but who have not yet been named. In South Africa, judges are sometimes helped by assessors, often experts in criminal law who can help the judge reach a verdict but have limited roles in the trial. South Africa abolished juries in criminal trials in 1969.
Gerrie Nel is considered South Africa’s top state prosecutor. He secured a conviction for corruption against former South African police chief Jackie Selebi, one of the country’s biggest cases before Pistorius killed Steenkamp. Nel is described as a master of presenting evidence by legal analysts. In Pistorius’ bail hearing last year, Nel painted a picture of Pistorius as a man who was “willing and ready to fire and kill” and Steenkamp as cowering, terrified and hiding in the toilet before Pistorius shot through the toilet door to kill her.
“She couldn’t go anywhere,” Nel said in court last February. “It must have been horrific.”
Described even by other attorneys as South Africa’s best defense lawyer, Barry Roux’s cross-examination of police detective Hilton Botha in Pistorius’ bail hearing last February was so extensive that Botha, who was later removed from the case, had to concede that nothing about Pistorius’ version of events could be disproved at the time.
Roux, an attorney for about 30 years, also succeeded in getting the court to agree to release Pistorius on bail of 1 million rand (then $113,000) despite the fact that the double-amputee athlete was charged with premeditated murder. He also got another court to relax some of Pistorius’ strict bail conditions on appeal.
Oscar Pistorius is now probably the world’s best-known track athlete. Initially a poster boy for disabled sport, Pistorius’ ability to also run alongside the best able-bodied athletes made him a sportsman whose endorsement was purchased by international brands like Nike. A multiple Paralympic champion and record-breaker, Pistorius is still the only amputee to run at the world championships and the Olympics.
He is also the defendant in a murder trial and faces a possible life sentence with a minimum of 25 years in prison before the possibility of parole if convicted. Other aspects of Pistorius’ life have been scrutinized since he killed Steenkamp, especially that he was also a gun enthusiast and collector and owned a 9 mm Parabellum pistol for self-defense and was pursuing licenses for six more guns, including an assault rifle.
Reeva Steenkamp was a model and reality TV star, but also a law graduate. The 29-year-old had been dating Pistorius for only a few months when she was killed by the Olympic athlete. They were introduced by mutual friends in late 2012 and decided to attend an awards ceremony together the day after. Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, have talked about her dedication to fighting domestic abuse rather than her modeling career and said she intended to open a shelter for abused women.
Her parents will now start a foundation to help “the poor and abused” in her memory, they said.
THE TOP COP:
After Hilton Botha’s bungled testimony in the bail hearing and the revelation that he was facing charges of attempted murder himself, Lt. Gen. Vinesh Moonoo was appointed to take over as the head police investigator in the Pistorius shooting. Moonoo was described by South Africa’s national police commissioner as the country’s No. 1 detective. He is not listed by the prosecution as one of its witnesses but has overseen the investigation for the last year. He is renowned for avoiding the limelight, according to South African crime reporters who say he has rarely given media interviews.
Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP