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Oscar Pistorius Trial: 5 Legal Facts You May Not Know

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on March 03, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Oscar Pistorius murder trial, which is being called the "trial of the century" in South Africa, began today with testimony from a neighbor of the Olympic track star.

The neighbor told the court she heard "bloodcurdling screams" followed by gunshots the night Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steencamp, Reuters reports. The neighbor said she then heard a man screaming for help.

While today's court proceedings may have seemed similar to how American courts work, there are significant differences between the South African and U.S. criminal justice systems. Here are five legal facts about the Oscar Pistorius trial that you may not have known:

  1. There are no jury trials in South Africa. Unlike the U.S. legal system, there are no jury trials in South Africa -- meaning Pistorius' verdict will be decided by a judge. The jury system was nixed in the 1960s because of serious concerns of racial prejudice by white jurors during the apartheid era, according to CNN.
  2. There is no death penalty in South Africa. In the United States, premeditated murder is considered first degree murder, which can be punished by death in many states. South Africa, however, abolished capital punishment in the 1990s. If Pistorius is convicted of premeditated murder, the mandatory sentence is life in prison -- but he may receive just 25 years unless there are extraordinary circumstances, CNN reports.
  3. If acquitted of murder, Pistorius could face a lesser charge of culpable homicide. If Pistorius isn't found guilty of premeditated murder, he faces the lesser charge of culpable homicide, CNN reports. Culpable homicide is similar to a charge of involuntary manslaughter in the United States, as both involve an unintentional killing that results from a high degree of unreasonable behavior. If convicted of culpable homicide, Pistorius could face up to 15 years in prison; however, he could also just get a slap on the wrist, depending on the circumstances.
  4. Two "assessors" are on hand to help decide Pistorius' fate. The judge in the Pistorius trial has appointed two "assessors" -- legal experts who help the judge evaluate a case. Under South African law, assessors can potentially "overrule" the judge by a majority vote when it comes to deciding the verdict based on the facts of the case, South Africa's Independent Online explains. For example, if both assessors find Pistorius not guilty of premeditated murder based on the facts presented, that'll be the accepted verdict even if the judge disagrees. However, when it comes to questions of law and sentencing, the judge has the final say.
  5. This is the first trial to be televised live in South Africa. According to CNN and Reuters, the Pistorius trial is the first to be televised live in South Africa, but it comes with limitations. Witnesses won't be filmed by TV cameras as they testify if they don't give consent. However, the opening and closing arguments, experts' testimonies, and police evidence can be broadcast live.

The first phase of Oscar Pistorius' trial is expected to last approximately three weeks, but it's unclear how long it'll take to complete the entire trial, reports CNN.

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