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'Blade Runner' Trial Becomes Media Frenzy


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're headed to South Africa now where many people are focused on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the famed Olympic athlete and double amputee known as Blade Runner for the striking prosthetics he uses to race.

He is charged with murdering his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day in 2013. Pistorius pled not guilty. He has admitted to fatally shooting her. But the trial hinges on whether he intended to kill or if her death was, as Pistorius put it in a statement, a devastating accident. The first day of proceedings have finished, and the BBC's Nomsa Maseko joins us now from outside the courtroom. Nomsa, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NOMSA MASEKO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Can you just give us a brief sense of what the atmosphere is like there and a brief wrap up of what happened today?

MASEKO: Well, I can tell you that Thokozile Masipa said court has adjourned for the day. It is going to be picked up tomorrow morning. And right now, of course, there's traffic, you know, around the court building. All this huge, media contingents that has gathered here outside the courtroom, both outside and inside. And, of course, live broadcast vans. And, of course, this is the first time in the history of South Africa that we are seeing a trial broadcast live because of that court ruling that was made last week.

A lot of media houses approached the court and were granted permission to broadcast the trial partially. But the audio of the trial is going to be throughout the actual trial itself. And, you know, there were a lot of people here. And this was the - for the first time that Oscar Pistorius actually met Reeva's Steenkamp's mother, you know. As he walked into court, he basically just walked past Reeva's mom, did not say a word and went straight into the dock. And Reeva's mom was accompanied by Reeva's elder sister. And, of course, Oscar Pistorius's family was also inside the courtroom. And there were also hundreds of journalists who were gathered here earlier.

MARTIN: You were telling us that this is the first time in South Africa's history that a trial has been televised, and some parts will be. And apparently, his testimony will not be. Comparisons, as you might imagine, are being made to the O.J. Simpson trial in this country a number of years ago. What is it - and where, of course, the whole issue of celebrity and all of these other issues were part of the fascination - what is part of the fascination there? And as you mentioned, this is an international - this is of international interest. What are some of the elements that you think make it so compelling?

MASEKO: Well, the reason why people are so interested in this case is because South Africans, in particular, viewed Oscar Pistorius as this golden boy who defeated the odds. You know, this is a young man who grew up without legs. He was amputated below the knee before he even turned 1. He was this amazing athlete who, you know, against all odds who made it. He gave hope to a lot of disabled people here in South Africa, not just athletes, that they can reach their goals. They are not disabled in mind. That they may be disabled in body, but they are still able to do what they wanted to do.

And Oscar Pistorius was viewed as that. But now people are starting to see a different side of Oscar Pistorius because since the shooting and death of his girlfriend on Valentine's Day last year - it's only started to emerge now in terms of the character of Oscar Pistorius when the cameras are switched off because we have been hearing that he has a fiery temper, and he loves guns and firearms and things like that. So this is the first time that people are actually starting to see another side of Oscar Pistorius. Of course, that will all be tested in court during this trial.

MARTIN: Is this trial viewed mainly as a matter of his individual guilt or innocence? Well, we know that he is responsible, but it's a question of whether this was an intentional killing are not or whether, as he put it, was an accident. Or is it being seen as kind of a broader referendum on women's safety? We understood that after the incident last year, we heard that a number of women's rights advocates saw it as symbolic of a larger lack of safety for women in South African society. How is it being viewed now - as more of a personal tragedy or is there still this broader social conversation going on?

MASEKO: Well, it's a bit of both in this case because people see Oscar Pistorius as a person who - of course as a celebrity, world-renowned - a person who wouldn't, you know, not make any mistake in the eyes of ordinary South Africans. But because those cases come along and then the way in which the judge last week granted the media permission to broadcast the trial partially. So the judge himself said that one of the reasons why he actually allowed this to happen is because he wants to show the world and not just South Africans that these celebrities, they're not above the law. And he wants to show that anybody - not as if - if this was shown in court, it wouldn't be infringing on Oscar Pistorius's human rights.

But of course, we also need to remember that in this country, we are seeing alarming and escalating waves of domestic violence of women in particular. And I must say that the judge who has been appointed to preside over the Oscar Pistorius case, she is not a small-time player. I mean, she has also, you know, presided over high-profile cases. In the last few months, she's sentenced a police officer to life in prison for shooting dead his wife, and, of course, also sentences an armed robber to more than 200 years in prison for all kinds of crimes. And she also has been sentencing rapists as well. And this is the same judge who has been making such - very strong comments about the escalating violence against women in South Africa. So all those issues are playing a major role. And because Oscar Pistorius - because of his (unintelligible), of course he is in the limelight and people are seeing this case as being in the public interest.

MARTIN: I just want to pick up on something that you mentioned here. I think that a lot of our U.S. listeners will be surprised to hear that there are no juries in South Africa, that trial by jury was abolished in 1969. And this case will be decided by this one judge. You told us a little bit about her biography, but who selects the judge for any case in this way? I mean, who's - who is the person who just makes this critical decision?

MASEKO: Well, in this case, it is South Africa's Justice Department. And the justice minister does not get to appoint judges. What they look at is the amount of work that a judge and experienced judge because this matter is being heard in the high court. So they basically look at the experience of the judge in terms of what she has been able to accomplish and what kind of person she is. And they'll also look at the workload and to see in terms of, you know - if they look at the timetable that they see an (unintelligible), you know, that this judge, perhaps, would have too many cases if she were to take over or take on a big, high-profile case like Oscar Pistorius's.

But in her case, it was viewed that she doesn't have a huge workload in terms of being able to take on this particular case and of course others that she has already been dealing with. And what I can tell you in this case that it's not just her who will be making this decision on her own. She has appointed two assessors. And in South African law, that is standard judicial practice to appoint assessors. The reason why assessors are appointed, particularly in high court, is because this case is so - not just - not the fact that it's high-profile only, but the fact that there's a murder involved.

So these two assessors who have been appointed, they basically are able to assist the judge on the matters of fact that are brought before court but not on matters of the law. So she gets to make the judgment because of evidence that is brought to her in the courtroom. So basically, it's only judgment that will be brought to her.

That's what she looks at. If it were a jury, for example, people would be saying the fact that Oscar Pistorius looks like, you know, he's in remorse, he was crying during his bail application - he could have possibly been pulling at heartstrings of members of the jury. But in a South African court, that does not matter. It's evidence that is brought before court that matters.

MARTIN: That was BBC reporter Nomsa Maseko joining us from just outside the courtroom. The first day of the trial of Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has just concluded, and she is reporting to us from there. Nomsa, thank you so much for speaking us.

MASEKO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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