Tag Archives: Oscar Pistorius

The Twenty-Year Taint–Still Misdirected

When I see commentaries like this Mankato (MN) Free Press opinion piece,  Our View: Cameras in courtroom should proceed, citing a 20-year-old  anomaly as the reason to bar cameras from courtrooms, I shake my head. 

It’s not that I disagree with it. I do. Instead, it’s why a trial from two decades ago remains the standard bearer, or maybe that should be gold standard of, or actually the great barrier, to permitting public access to the nation’s courtrooms?

Here’s the Manakato Free Press editorial opening paragraph:

“The O.J. Simpson trial may have made for gripping TV, but it isn’t what the public would see if cameras were allowed in more Minnesota courtrooms.”

Neither the Simpson trial nor “gripping TV” is what the public sees in Los Angeles, California, or the other 35 or so states that allow courtroom-camera coverage. Although California tightened its courtroom-camera coverage rules a year or two after the Simpson trial, to primarily give trial judges more discretion over whether to allow cameras in cases they presided over, that state has continued to allow camera coverage. Among the hundreds of trials in California since Simpson at which cameras were permitted was Phil Spector’s murder trial, both the 2007 trial and the 2009 retrial.

Dozens of high-profile trials in other states in the past twenty years have also been televised, most with much hoo-ha. Then there was the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa just this year, which was the first trial ever televised in that country. Although some were media clamors at trials such as the 2011 Casey Anthony trial, that was by no means the fault of cameras in the courtrooms. Rather it was the same kind of media hype that turned a number of trials into media spectacles, such as the 2004 trial of Scott Peterson for murdering his wife, Laci, and Martha Stewart’s obstruction-of-justice trial, also in 2004, neither of which had camera coverage.

There are far more compelling reasons than not to permit camera coverage of trials in this country. The Mankato Free Press cited one in the subhead of its piece:

“Why it matters: The more access the public has to how the criminal justice system works, the more they will know about it.”

Another, and I think a more important, reason is because it should be the public’s right to be able to observe the country’s and every state’s justice systems at work.


Pistorius, Simpson Parallels — and Not

The premise of how eerily similar Olympian Oscar Pistorius’s case in the shooting death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp is to that of  the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson case in the slashing murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her acquaintance Ronald Goldman — including this one,  OSCAR PISTORIUS TRIAL PARALLELS OJ SIMPSON’S TRIAL TWO DECADES EARLIER posted today on eCanadanow.com — has circled the globe many times over since Pistorius shot Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day last year.

And, indeed, there are some similarities, such as:

  • Both of the accused were famous sports heroes,
  • Both of the victims (or at least one of the victims in Simpson’s case) were beautiful blonde women, whom the accused either supposedly loved or at one time loved,
  • Trials in both cases captivated large numbers of the public
  • Trials in both cases were televised.

That’s about where the parallels end, though.

It seems to me that much more was different than similar in those cases, including:

  • Pistorius admitted that he fired the gun that killed Steenkamp, Simpson not only denied wielding the knife that slashed Brown and Goldman, he claimed to have been in Chicago, a couple thousand miles away from Los Angeles where Brown and Goldman were murdered.
  • A single judge weighted the evidence and delivered the verdict in Pistorius’s trial as opposed to 12 jurors in Simpson’s trial,
  • Nothing I read or heard about the Pistorius case raised the notion that anyone tried to play the “race card,” unless someone wants to try to make something of the judge, Thokozile Masipa, being black and Pitorius white. So far as I know, no one did.
  • While Pitorius wasn’t convicted of premeditated murder, neither was he acquitted and walk out of the courtroom a free man as Simpson did. Instead, Judge Masipa, found Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide. Although he has yet to be sentenced, culpable homicide generally carries a sentence of five years in prison.

It seems to me that all these two cases really had in common was that the defendants were celebrated athletes accused of killing beautiful blonde-haired women they either loved or formerly loved. But, what kind of headline would that make?


Who’s Glued To Their TVS?

South African writer Susan Erasmus might be right in her recent piece,” Why we are so glued to the Oscar trial,” posted  on the South African news website “Health 24” that people are fixated on high-profile trials–particularly those with celebrities and sports heroes as defendants–the way they were public executions in times past.

But Erasmus is way off base when she asserts that the Oscar Pistorius trial in her home country has “grabbed worldwide attention in the same way people were glued to the screen for the O.J. Simpson trial.”

She’s correct about the Simpson trial grabbing worldwide attention. An example is a lawyer in Los Angeles who visited Simpson trial judge Lance Ito after returning from a trip that included Tibet. Even there, she said, all anybody had to say was “the trial” and it was instantly understood the reference was to the Simpson trial.

First, I have a pretty extensive circle of contacts and more than a thousand Facebook friends. None, however, mention the Pistorius trial or post anything about it that shows up on my Timeline.

That is not to say that people in this country and those I know in other countries don’t know about Pistorius, the fatal shooting of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and I’m sure his trial is being followed by niche audiences, such as sports media, the Olympics community, disabled groups, the legal community and most certainly by South Africans. But it’s not a topic of daily–or even infrequent–conversation in general outside of that country.

I don’t know if any government official has asked the Pistorius judge to suspend the trial on election day as the California secretary of state did Ito, for fear the trial would contribute of a lower-than-normal voter turn out.

And we’ll see if television networks suspend or break into regular programming on Pistorius verdict day anywhere other than South Africa as it they did in the U.S.  when the Simpson verdicts came in.

I think “interest in” is a much better assessment of the non-South African public so far as the Pistorius trial is concerned, instead of “glued to.”

Two Trials in Black and White

Among the parallels observed between the current trial of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius and the 1995 criminal trial of former football star O.J. Simpson is race. Just how racial issues and racism manifests and manifested themselves in those trials are somewhat different as might be inferred by a recent Los Angeles Times piece, headlined “Subtext of the Oscar Pistorius trial: South Africans’ fear of crime” by Robyn Dixon.

As in white South Africa, as in white United States, “Because we see whites as victims and blacks as perpetrators, our collective sympathies are always with whites. There hasn’t been a commensurate articulation of concern about white male violence as a threat to the fabric of our society,” Dixon quotes Sisonke Msimang, executive director of the nonprofit Open Society Initiative for Southern African, from Msimang’s article “Crossing the street to avoid white men: A conversation about violence” posted on the news website Daily Maverick. “In our national psyche” Msimang wrote, “whites (and of late middle-class people of all races) are almost always the victims of black male violence. Blacks, on the other hand, are rarely worthy of mention as victims at all. If they are, it is at the hands of other blacks.”

Among the differences? The defendant in the Simpson trial was black, albeit an admired and, by some, beloved celebrity. Pistorius, or course, is white.  My guess is that the cheerleaders and fans, along racial lines, have markedly different views regarding guilt or innocence.  Simpson’s acquittal also elicited differing reactions, primarily along a racial divide.

It will be interesting to see if the Pistorius verdict receives a similar response.

Despite Coverage, Pistorius is No OJS

Expert: Screaming gives Pistorius ‘major problem’ is the most recent headline I’ve seen about the murder trial of South African double amputee Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. I see headlines like that only because I set an Oscar Pistorius Google News Alert and because they occasionally appear on my AOL daily news feed.

For months before the Pistorius trial began, pundits predicted that it would equal or eclipse the 1995 O.J. Simpson criminal trial in terms of public interest and media coverage, which includes cameras in the courtroom.

While it has gotten extensive coverage, now that the case in deep in the prosecution’s evidence presentation phase, it is clearly nowhere close to the international phenomenon of the Simpson trial, or even the 2005 Michael Jackson child-molestation trial, both in California.

The fact that these are not nightly news or daily newspaper headlines in this country give evidence that the Pistorius trial has yet to rise to the level of an international notorious trial, a la Simpson and Jackson.

This anecdote is telling:

In the early stages of the Simpson trial, a lawyer friend of the trial judge, Lance Ito, told him about a trip she had just returned from that included a stay in Tibet where all anybody had to say was “the trial” and everybody knew without question the reference was to the O.J. Simpson trial. I venture to guess that nothing close to that is occurring with Pistorius in Tibet or most countries other than South Africa.

Also, during the Jackson trial, hordes of Jackson fans in countries around the globe not only followed it, but rallied in support of him in large gatherings and other venues. I don’t see that happening–either in support of or against–Oscar Pistorius.

It is, though, an interesting trial to follow.

Wrong Books to Jog O. J. Memories

I am cut to the quick!

Here is a column in a Nebraska newspaper, the Grand Island Independent jumping on the “Oscar Pistorius case is O. J. deja vu-No it isn’t!” bandwagon and recommends two books as memory refreshers. http://www.kearneyhub.com/news/opinion/south-african-murder-trial-looks-a-lot-like-o-j/article_fcfe4252-7f70-11e2-a491-0019bb2963f4.html

Neither is Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People vs. O. J. Simpson. How could that be? Could the columnist, George Ayoub, possibly not know about Anatomy?

Not only do I feel slighted, one book Ayoub did recommend is a work of fiction! Although the author of that book, Dominick Dunne, was a dear friend (I still mourn his death of three-and-a-half years ago) and a popping good writer, sowing fiction into such a high-profile trial that was already and continues to be so fraught with media warp and trivial pursuits, was almost a crime itself. It was also a betrayal of his being given full-time courtroom access to the trial.

Dunne wasn’t the only author who defaulted on his stated purpose for wanting that access and covering the trial. Even though his book was fiction, something he readily acknowledged when his book was published long after the trial was over, at least he wrote one. Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss didn’t.

After occupying a full-time courtroom seat for the duration of the trial that a serious journalist or journalists (because seats were so scarce, many members of the media had to share a seat with fellow journalists) could have used to report to the public on the trial, McGinniss took off for Europe to write about soccer. He said it was impossible to write the book he wanted to — from the perspective of a juror who was sequestered and had no access to any information a sequestered juror didn’t have access to.

Well, duh! He sat in the courtroom and listened to debates over the admissibility of evidence and much more. He lunched and socialized with his fellow media-types.

Not only is  my Anatomy of a Trial a behind-the-scenes expose, it covers the  disingenuousness of the likes of Joe McGinniss. Not living up to the terms of getting a courtroom seat is just one of losses dealt the public who followed that trial or trusted the news media to inform them about and help them understand the workings of the judicial system.

A Pistorius Documentary Based on Speculation?

That didn’t take long!

The Hollywood Reporter has reported that just a week after South African Olympics hero Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a documentary is in the works — not about Pistorius’s life or athletic feats (sorry ;), although that’s sure to be included, but about the shooting.

“BBC Three commissions an hourlong ‘fast-turnaround’ special about the South African Paralympics star and the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.” http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/bbc-orders-oscar-pistorius-documentary-422980

Is that the fastest dash on record to document a crime and its preliminary heats?

Perhaps the now-defunct Dove Books had Nicole Brown friend Faye Resnick under contract to produce a book within a week of former football star O.J. Simpson’s June 17, 1994, arrest for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman. By Oct. 22, just four months after the June 12 murders, word was out that “750,000 copies of Ms. Resnick’s book, ‘Nicole Brown Simpson: The Private Diary of a Life Interrupted,’ have been rushed into print.”   http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1994-10-22/features/1994295053_1_faye-resnick-brown-simpson-nicole-brown

Since so many facts about the Steenkamp shooting are as yet unknown and so much of what has been reported is based on rumors, gossip and fabrication, it seems like a lot of that is what the BBC documentary will be based on.

Perception-Shaping Words

“Innocent until proven guilty” has become such a quaint saying, at least as far as some cases appear in the media.

The following blurb — “The Olympic sprinter was afraid of intruders, thought his girlfriend was in bed next to him and thought he fired on a burglar who was hiding in the bathroom. Pistorius’ defense escapes being rational — but he could also escape a murder rap.” — ran beneath the New York Daily News headline “Oscar Pistorius’ bail hearing already mirroring the spectacle that was the O.J. Simpson trial”


Both the headline and the blurb hum with opinion-shaping references and terms.

Just coupling Oscar Pistorius’s name with O.J. Simpson relative to the murder charges lodges against them automatically casts the pall of suspicion and sense of injustice embraced by many that marked and still dog Simpson and his acquittal.

Then the overall suggestion that Pistorius’s story of how he came to shoot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp is implausible implants subliminal if not overt doubt  on that story.

And there are buzz phrases such as “Pistorius’s defense escapes being rationale” and “…also could escape a murder rap”.  Those assertions pretty much nail Pistorius’s guilt, at least so far as the headline and blurb writers are concerned, wouldn’t you say?

So just what does “innocent until proven guilty” really mean? Or has it become meaningless?

Pistorius Needs Unanimity of One

Parallels between the Oscar Pistorius case of the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and that of O.J. Simpson who stood trial for the premeditated murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown blare from countless news stories and endless punditry.

The victims were gorgeous blondes. Claims of domestic violence abound. Agendas and/or competency of the lead police detectives are questioned.

But there are differences, as Simpson defense attorney Bob Shapiro points out in this article. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2013/02/21/oj-simpson-oscar-pistorius-robert-shapiro-us-legal-system-south-african-legal-system/1935873/

A huge difference in the trials themselves–a trial date might be set for Pistorius at his next court appearance on June 4–is that Oscar Pistorius will not be facing a jury. South Africa does not have a jury system. Cases there are determined by a single judge who presides over the proceedings.

That will decomplicate a lot. One is the time and expense of selecting twelve members of the public to comprise a jury, and from a few to several more to serve as alternates. Eight were chosen for the Simpson trial.

Another is the monumental decision about whether or not to sequester the 12 plus alternates. Monumental because of the huge risk of contamination if they are not sequestered which could result in a mistrial versus the exorbitant cost of housing, feeding and entertaining them, not to mention the terrible disruption in their lives, if they are sequestered. The Simpson jurors and alternates were sequestered–which was almost akin to being imprisoned–for more than nine months. Nine months of having to live apart from their families and being away from their jobs, with some employers refusing to pay them during that time.

Yet another complication can be a dysfunctional situation either with one or more jurors, individually, or in group interactions.

I devoted a chapter to the 1995 Simpson jury, juror problems and high drama in Anatomy of a Trial.

Another significant difference between the Pistorius and Simpson cases is that as of this morning, Pistorius is out on bail. Simpson spent the entire 14-plus months behind bars, from his June 17, 1994, arrest until his Oct. 3, 1995, acquittal.

Oscar Pistorius and Media-Created Bias?

When does media coverage of high-profile events tread into the murky waters of affecting the outcome of a court case or person’s reputation?

That question has popped up in the charges against and legal proceedings of  South African Olympic hero Oscar Pistorius, who is accused of killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp — just as it has in just about every notorious case since the beginning of time, or perhaps since Gutenberg invented the printing press.

That issue was at the heart of the change of venue that moved the Rodney King-beating trial from Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley just 25 miles up the freeway to the city of Simi Valley in the adjacent  county of Ventura. The impact of media coverage was also asserted in just about every other high-profile case in the Los Angeles Superior Court during my 1991-2002 tenure there as information officer and media liaison, including the 1995 O.J.Simpson trial.

South Africa has at least one anti-bias measure in its toolbox that puts the onus on the news media there that U.S. courts don’t have. They can hold the news media contempt, if it’s determined that coverage has created bias.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/19/oscar-pistorius-media-south-africa-contempt

True, the criteria in South Africa’s contempt provision have become less intimidating  and subjective in recent years, thanks to a 2007 review of the provision by that country’s highest court. The threshold before the review permitted contempt charges “if a report ‘tended’ to prejudice the administration of justice.”

Such a measure in the United States would have chilled the news media right out of the country’s courthouses. It’s so arbitrary, I can’t think of a single trial of significant public interest in which one side or the other couldn’t have made a stickable argument for excluding media coverage or that might have led to the news media being liable for contempt.

The South African high court, however, amended the provision so that now “…the question a court must ask is whether there will be ‘real risk’ of substantial prejudice to the administration of justice,” which raises the bar considerably for all parties in a court case. It, in essence,  says that “The question must now be decided in the context of a balancing exercise between two competing constitutional rights: the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression,” according to The Guardian article.

I see a substantial difference in the wording of the pre- and post-high court rulings. But even though the current criteria brings the South African standard closer to the Unites States standard, holding the news media in contempt for their coverage of a case rare to non-existent in this country,  thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of a free press. And fewer than a handful of cases have been permitted retrials on the grounds that media coverage affected the verdict. Billie Sol Estes and Sam Sheppard, are the only ones that come immediately to my mind.