The Implications of an Error in Persona

In my last post I outlined some of the main issues of the Oscar Pistorius trial, focussing on its TV broadcasting and highlighting some ethical considerations. I now want to take the subject further to show the overall relevance of the trial for my project.

When Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day 2013, this was short before my first explorative research stay in South Africa. By the time I arrived in Pretoria, the topic was still a hot one and it proved to be a fruitful ice-breaker at the beginning of interviews. Why? From the beginning on, two major exclusive versions of the events existed. One version was pushed forward by the accused himself and later on by his lawyers, claiming that when he shot the person behind the closed bathroom door at his house, Oscar Pistorius thought he was facing an intruder. But this description was soon called into question by media and the public as some elements of the story just seem obscure: Why would the deceased have locked herself into the bathroom in the middle of the night, taking her cellphone with her? The accused stated that at the time he went to the bathroom and shot the assumed intruder, he thought his girlfriend was still lying in bed. Going along with his version, how probable is it he didn’t notice she was not lying next to him?

Following media coverage before the trial had begun, what I always found most intriguing were the comments of readers posted underneath online articles. They revealed that the public had already made up their mind and to no surprise opinions were split with one camp heavily defending the athlete and showing support and sympathy, the other camp condemning him. And as usual in South African discussions, the role of racism within the case was brought up. But that’s another story (and indeed a very long one) I won’t delve into now. For a very interesting article discussing the connection of racism and the Pistorius case I recommend the article “Oscar Pistorius trial: the imaginary black stranger at the heart of the defense” by Margie Orford.

When the proceedings of the trial moved on, testimonies of neighbours, various experts as well as friends and family members were given, some of them supporting Pistorius’ version of the events, some were rather in line with the prosecution. Besides “character evidence” – given in order to determine if the accused is in general a rather decent or aggressive person – it was for example largely discussed what witness A and B had heard in the morning of Valentine’s Day 2013, where exactly were they lying in bed when they heard the shots (and are they absolutely sure it wasn’t the banging of a cricket bat?) and could they really see the neighbouring buildings from their position or were the curtains closed that night? The question might be raised, why this thorough investigation of all those details is so important. After all the guy shot his girlfriend and admitted pulling the trigger. There’s no arguing about that. But what the court is trying to determine (and the court has to pass judgement according to what is probable beyond reasonable doubt) is, when Pistorius’ pulled the trigger, whom did he intend to shoot? He claims he thought the person behind the door was an intruder. This would mean he acted according to an ‘error in persona’ and with this his actions were based on a wrong assumption of the identity of the person he shot. Still, this doesn’t necessarily free him from having committed premeditated murder. But if the error in persona is accepted by court, this bears major consequences for the framing of the events: then we would be looking at a case of self-defense gone wrong, a crime committed in the fear of becoming a victim of crime oneself.  The outcome would be a narrative which works well in angst and crime ridden South Africa, where living behind electric fences and owning a gun for self-defense lie close together. By rejecting an error in persona though, the story is a different one. And again, it would refer to phenomena deeply woven into South African society: Domestic violence, femicide, intimate partner violence.

During my research stay in South Africa, I got the opportunity to visit court myself and I was allowed to observe how cases of domestic violence are being dealt with when the accused is not a person of public interest, when nobody else is in the courtroom besides the judge, the prosecutor, the translator, the attorney, the accused, the applicant and – once in a while – a witness. Here, adjudication is of course much quicker as most of the time cases are not that complex.  For several days I sat with the clerks of the domestic violence unit and watched in pure amazement how every minute people of all ages and backgrounds would come to the counter to request the application form for a protection order. This being said it has to be noted that the Domestic Violence Act covers quite a range of offenses including next to the obvious exertion of physical violence also financial abuse, emotional abuse and religious abuse. Furthermore the Domestic Violence Act covers not only issues of intimate partner violence, but comes into effect regarding offenses committed within any domestic relation i.e. people who are blood related or who live together. Statistically speaking but also undermined by my own observations, particularly women are most at risk when it comes to abuse and violence and during my time at court they formed the major group of applicants.

Domestic Violence in general and especially (intimate partner) violence against women is a major issue in South African society. It has yet to be decided if the case of Oscar Pistorius will be – for now – the most prominent example.

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