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Updated 02 March 2016

Who’s on trial, Oscar or SA's prisons?

The general state of South Africa’s prisons may be deplorable, but according to CyberShrink, for the purpose of this phase of the trial, the fact is completely irrelevant.

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After a little more valid, if emotional, evidence from Kim Martin, we moved on to what became a trial within a trial. At lunch-time, on Channel 199, Devi and a fiercely crusading lawyer, Sunette, dismissed this evidence as “subjective”, which is surprising, because this was precisely what it was supposed to be.


State of SA prisons irrelevant to the case


Nel called Zach Modise, acting national commissioner for correctional services, who was an excellent witness, clear and frank. 

Roux, then, assisted by the Sunette and Devi show, turned the hearing into an inquisition on SA’s prisons. Sunette spoke at great length about prison reform, earnestly carrying on about her pet issue, rather than saying anything usefully about the actual case at hand.

Read:
A day in prison

To be quite honest, the general state of South Africa’s prisons is deplorable. But for the purpose of this phase of the trial, it really is totally irrelevant whether prisoners in East London or elsewhere are routinely barbecued and eaten. What matters is whether and where Oscar is to be incarcerated, and if he would be adequately accommodated. 

Vergeer made sweeping statements about South African prisons, based on nothing reliable or credible and her report should actually have been thrown out of court as an inadequate fantasy. 

Roux attacked all prisons everywhere with a vengeance, and mud was thrown, vigorously and indiscriminately. Without taking any other inmates into consideration, Roux demanded that Oscar receive guaranteed special treatment.

Proper and prompt assessment


It’s likely that, under normal circumstances, Oscar would be rapidly assessed and allocated to the medical section for accommodation and further assessment. Mr Modise, in fact, guaranteed that, in line with regulations, Oscar would be properly and promptly assessed with regard to his needs, and provided with the facilities he requires. 

But that was not enough. Roux demanded an immediate guarantee that, without any assessment, Modise should guarantee Oscar the treatment Roux thinks is best. To do so, would be in breach of all regulations and highly improper – and hats off to Mr Modise for standing his ground.

Read:
Is it worth sending Oscar to jail?    

Of course conditions in prison are not “ideal”! Oscar knew full well what SA prisons are like when he killed Riva – and most people manage to keep out of jail with great ease by not shooting other people.  

Statistics were bandied about as though every prisoner needed treatment from a doctor and a psychologist at least on a daily basis. But, of course, the intention was to be misleading and alarmist, not helpful.

What a monumental snob Roux was, expressing horror at the thought that poor Oscar might encounter other prisoners who might have an infectious disease! As if that couldn’t happen in a waiting room at legal Chambers, or at a private hospital, or in the nightclubs he likes to frequent. Oscar shouldn’t be exposed to disease unnecessarily, but nobody can guarantee his complete safety. No South African is safe, whether at home, at the Mall or at work, so why should Oscar be an exception?   

Let’s be realistic; it’s highly unlikely Oscar would ever be neglected, and even prison authorities who might ignore other inmates, would be highly vigilant, for their own sakes.

Public 'baying for blood'
 

The public has grown alarmed at possible outcome of this case, and the sometimes spurious evidence from Oscar and his defenders, probably turned many people against him. The verdict was badly explained and left many with the feeling that he was being “let off lightly”. Lawyers are sneeringly describing the public as “baying for blood”, but after hearing the absurd testimony of two probation officers, of course they suspect he’ll merely get a slap on the wrist.

Read:
Oscar's alarming array of ‘experts’  

It could create a crisis in public confidence in the legal system if he is not sent to jail for a significant period, and without excessive protective orders to cosset him. Spending a few hours a month dusting in a museum is ultimately not going to be to anyone’s benefit


Low standard of 'expert witnesses'


People have commented on how the televising of this case has shed light on the SA legal system, showing it to be functional, on the whole. And even the lights stayed on. But it has also exposed a number of flaws, notably the sometimes deplorably low standard of “expert witnesses” and their reports.   

The privileges enjoyed by an expert witness should only be granted if someone has the proper credentials to be considered an expert. It must be stated clearly in what field they are claiming expertise. It was, for instance, totally unclear in which field Ms Vergeer was an expert and Mr Dixon should not have been allowed to testify on subjects where he cheerfully admitted he had no expertise whatever.   


Opinions for sale


Courts also need to be aware, and to beware, of mercenaries. There are some professionals whose opinions are available for hire. Some are “versatile”, and will testify for anyone who’ll pay, promoting whatever argument you wish. Many are single issue guerrillas, who have a standard report, arguing a particular point, which they will tweak and provide in any case that needs that point to be made. Mr A will argue that nobody should ever go to jail while Mrs B will claim that anyone suffers from anxiety disorder, and so forth.

Real experts can be of great value to a court, but the “right” opinion should never be available on demand. Expert witnesses can be paid for their time, but their opinion should not be for sale.

Read more:

Oscar has never shown any real remorse
Is Oscar really a ‘broken man’?
Is Oscar Pistorius really writing a book?
 

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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