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Conflicting Accounts of Reeva Steenkamp’s Death Emerge in the Courtroom

February 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
For more on the murder charges against Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius, Margaret Warner talks with Gary Alfonso of Feature Story News, who was in the courtroom during the bail hearing and offers reactions from fellow South Africans.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on today’s hearing and the reaction in South Africa, I’m joined by Gary Alfonso, Johannesburg bureau chief for Feature Story News. He’s covering the trial.

And, Gary, welcome. You were in the courtroom today. What was it like?

GARY ALFONSO, Feature Story News: It was an absolutely incredible scene, court scene.

And the magistrate court in Pretoria was overrun by international and local journalists and hundreds of onlookers and interested people on the outside and obviously family members of Oscar Pistorius mostly. No family members of Reeva Steenkamp in court today because obviously her funeral was being held in Port Elizabeth, which is about 1,000 miles from Johannesburg and in a coastal region.

But, in court, very swamped, very hot court, only seating place for about 60 or 70 people, and there were about 170 people in that courtroom, so very, very packed, very humid, and obviously everybody very intent on listening to exactly what Oscar Pistorius was saying, and social media playing a very big role today.

And of course the judge warned or the magistrate warned that any abuse of any judicial systems will not be tolerated anymore because photographs had been taken during session the day before or earlier when Oscar Pistorius appeared the first time last week.

MARGARET WARNER: So what was most new or significant in the alternative versions that the prosecution and defense offered today of what happened that night?

GARY ALFONSO: Well, what was most significant was that, for the first time, reports that were only conjecture at the time and over the weekend in weekend newspapers and in the media was that Oscar Pistorius claimed that he had shot his girlfriend by accident.

Today, in his affidavit, it came out that he stated unequivocally that it was an accident, that it was a whole range of issues that accidentally led him to shoot through that bathroom door with his .9-millimeter pistol.

The second thing that came definitively was that the state was adamant in pursuing a charge of murder, premeditated murder, a schedule six charge in South Africa, which carries an automatic life sentence without the option of parole.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s reported that he is not getting a jury trial, that, in fact, South Africa doesn’t have jury trials. Why is that?

GARY ALFONSO: Well, South Africa doesn’t have a jury trial because juries were abolished in 1969 by the apartheid government of Hendrik Verwoerd.

And they were done away with because primarily the apartheid system at the time didn’t want to have opposing views or even independent views coming from out of the judiciary and out of the legal system. Now, you understand that during the apartheid era, many people were sentenced to death. And possibly the reason why the state wanted full control of all organisms of policing and the justice system was to do away with that system.

The jury system is one of the issues still being discussed in South African law. What has changed from the British or common law initiatives of earlier centuries and earlier decades is that today judges have to be assisted by two assessors and those assessors are legal experts that assist judges in concluding their court case.

MARGARET WARNER: What has been the reaction of the South African public to this case, beyond the immediate amazement about it and Oscar Pistorius and so on, but sort of touching on wider questions about South African society?

GARY ALFONSO: I think one of the most important things to come out of this case even in its early days is the issue of violence against women. It’s the issue of guns in society.

One of the important issues being addressed in the country at the moment is violence against women and children. The ANC Women’s League were seen at the court protesting against Oscar Pistorius receiving bail not on the grounds of the killing, but on the grounds that this is another extreme case of what they regard as violence against women, and that highlighting that is an important part of South African society moving forward.

That’s one case. The other one is the gun issue. And a very large component or contingent of South African society is armed, and armed with small arms and some with heavier arms, as in the case of Oscar Pistorius, who had several rifles and even one semiautomatic rifle. So the issue of gun control and gun licenses being granted perhaps too easily and testing not being done on individuals who end up with rifles outside of the hunting disciplines, et cetera, I think that’s one of the issues that have come out of this as a very emotive issue as to who — in whose hands guns should be.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Gary Alfonso, Feature Story News in Johannesburg, thank you.