Forensic Science in the Dock: A journalist’s guide to the Oscar Pistorius trial

Over 60 local and international journalists attended

Over 60 local and international journalists attended

Kyla Herrmannsen

Today the Wits Justice Project together with Wits Communications hosted a special training workshop for media ahead of the Oscar Pistorius trial. The training – ‘Forensic Science in the Dock: A journalist’s guide to the Oscar Pistorius trial’ – featured four key speakers namely Professor Stephen Tuson, Dr David Klatzow, Dr Patrick Randolph-Quinney and Ms Lisa Vetten. The speakers looked at the upcoming Pistorius trial, lending their own areas of expertise to certain aspects of the case.

Tuson, adjunct professor at the Wits School of Law, explained that every crime is broken up into two key aspects, the criminal act and the criminal intent. Pistorius has already admitted to the criminal act of firing shots – but his intent is what the upcoming trial will establish. What was Oscar’s intent when the pulled the trigger and what was his state of mind at the time? This is the question the trial will seek to answer.

Professor Stephen Tuson, adjunct professor at the Wits School of Law

Professor Stephen Tuson, adjunct professor at the Wits School of Law

Tuson discussed the difference between expert witnesses and other witnesses. He stressed that any opinion given in court must be based on some factual evidence from the scene of the crime. In addition to this, expert opinion must be based on logical reasoning and experience in the expert’s field of specialisation. Opinions of experts unsupported by facts carries little weight,” said Tuson.

Tuson said that under South African law the accused has the right to silence and does not have to testify in court. If, however, the accused does testify they have to testify before any witness testimony is heard by the court. It is currently unclear whether Pistorius’ council will urge him to testify or abstain from testifying. Essentially, Pistorius gave his account of the events of the crime during his bail hearing which, under South African law, could be used in the trial as it was said on record. But, according to Tuson, this evidence will not be able to be cross-examined and is therefore “virtually worthless”.

Klatzow, forensic science expert, followed on from Tuson’s discussion of expert witnesses and revealed that the role of expert witnesses is not well defined under South African law. The state will be trying to show that Pistorius had criminal intent to kill Reeva. In light of this, Klatzow said, “Oscar’s first problem is that four shots were fired”. Another non-negotiable is that in order to legitimise force, your life must be in imminent and obvious danger but, in Pistorius’ case, the ‘assailant’ was on the other side of a door.

Forensic expert, Dr David Klatzow

Forensic expert, Dr David Klatzow

“He could have fired a warning shot into the ceiling instead…so many shots will be used to infer he intended to kill,” said Klatzow. He said if Pistorius testifies he will have a hard job explaining why no precautionary attempt was made to find out where Reeva was before he fired the shots.

Randolph-Quinney, forensic anthropologist in the Human Identification Unit in the Wits School of Anatomical Sciences, spoke of the commercialisation of forensic sciences noting how popular television shows like ‘CSI’ and ‘Bones’ are not a true depiction of forensic science. “Science is induced from facts,” said Randolph-Quinney. He warned against misapplied statistics and the danger of the media picking one side of a case too irresponsibly.

Vetten, an expert in the field of violence against women who is currently based at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), said that in light of the global attention on the Pistorius trial it will be “a tutorial of sorts for coverage of domestic violence.” Vetten made the important distinction between lethal and non-lethal violence. In this case, Pistorius killed Reeva, therefore it’s classified as lethal. The fact that he killed her is not being disputed, what is to be examined is his intent hence the prosecution will focus on the nature of their relationship.

Lisa Vetten of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER)

Lisa Vetten of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER)

Vetten noted that this case is “depressingly ordinary” in South Africa, the only thing that makes it exceptional is the celebrity status of those involved. She revealed that in 1999, South Africa’s female homicide rate was six times higher than the global average.

Vetten offered journalists a word of advice saying that many women who have suffered under acts of domestic violence will be watching the case closely and identifying with Reeva – and responsible reporting on domestic abuse offers readers avenues and contact details of organisations where they can seek assistance. Journalists should be looking at “what is the nature of help offered and where is this help available?”

The session was an essential training tool in preparing journalists to better understand the nuances of reporting on criminal cases, with a specific focus on the upcoming Oscar Pistorius trial.


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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