Explainer: Why do they keep saying ‘My Lady’ at the Oscar Pistorius trial?
Schalk van Zuydam AP Press Association Images
ALTHOUGH MANY OF us would not like to admit it, the Oscar Pistorius murder trial is captivating viewing.
Even when those in the witness box decline to be filmed, the camera turns to the accused. A kind of twisted OscarCam that makes for compelling viewing. The 27-year-old, who shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day in 2013, sometimes sits with his head in his hands, seemingly inconsolable.
At other stages, he is quite animated, writing notes and passing them to his legal team, or fiddling with his phone.
He was physically sick as details of the victim’s post-mortem were given earlier this week. Reporters in the courtroom said the stench reached them on the benches.
For those watching from Ireland, the judicial system is noticeably different. For one, they are actually able to watch it live — there is even a 24-hour news channel dedicated to it called The Oscar Pistorius Trial.
However, this is unusual for South Africa as well.
Judge Thokozile Masipa made a landmark ruling ahead of the trial, allowing media access to tape the testimony. There have been some restrictions put in place, but hours of footage have been shown each day of the past two weeks.
During those hours, viewers will have heard the words “My Lady” said more than anything else.
It can be quite jarring at first to take this in as they are said in response to the questions of two male lawyers — Larry Roux for the defence and Gerrie Nel for the State.
However, there’s a simple explanation.
When witnesses take the stand, they are talking to the court (not to the lawyers). The head of the court is the judge, and in this case the judge is female. Hence, “My Lady”.
If the judge was male, the words would be My Lord or My Lordship.
Got more questions? Read on…
Why is Pistorius on trial since he has admitted to shooting Reeva?
The State has accused the Olympian of pre-meditated murder, something he denies.
He says that he shot the 30-year-old model after mistaking her for an intruder, in a moment of paranoia.
So can he be convicted of a lesser crime?
Yes, the court may find him guilty of lesser charges, such as culpable homicide. Incidentally, Pistorius’s brother was acquitted of just that charge last year.
Pre-meditated murder carries a sentence of life in prison (without parole for at least 25 years). Culpable homicide could see him go to jail for up to 15 years.
Will we hear from Pistorius?
The accused will appear before the court as a defence witness after the State has closed its case. He will be subjected to a cross-examination by the State prosecutor.
When does it end?
The trial was due to run until 20 March, but there are now plans for a two-week extension.
How come we haven’t seen a jury?
There are no juries in South African court rooms. They were abolished in 1969 under apartheid laws. Despite the repeal of these rules, the judicial system remains unchanged in terms of juries.
The 66-year-old former crime reporter will deliver a verdict by herself. South Africans seem to have much faith in her that, because of her experience, she will come to an unbiased decision, unfazed by the celebrity and attention on the proceedings.
What have we heard this week?
The evidence has jumped to a number of factors this week, including the devastation that the bullets used can cause to the human body; the marks on the bathroom door made by the cricket bat used by the defendant to break the lock; and the food found in Steenkamp’s stomach.
This food suggests she ate within two hours of her death. This appears to contradict the athlete’s version that the couple went to bed around 10pm the previous evening. However, his legal team claimed that there could not be certainty to the doctor’s claim.
Judge Masipa banned all live media coverage of Saayman’s testimony on the autopsy report, including live posts on Twitter and blogs.
The hearing so far has been dotted with bizarre events, and not just Pistorius’s retching.
During one neighbour’s testimony, Roux read the witness’s telephone number to the court. Obviously, he started to receive calls and texts from members of the public who were watching.
Another blunder on Thursday led to a photograph of Steenkamp’s body being shown in court by accident. The accused got sick again.
The trial continues.