November 28, 2017

A Tale of Two Sentences

Last Friday, while most South Africans were wrestling each other for cheap toilet paper, two men had their own black Friday when they heard their fate in their respective courts.

Christopher Panayiotou received a life sentence for the murder of his wife, Jayde.  The interesting thing about this case was that he did not do the deed himself, but employed someone to do it for him.

I cannot comprehend the pure evil of this. While he was sharing a dinner table and a bed with Jade, he was callously plotting her murder. It is not difficult to get divorced. I can only imagine that his motive was that a divorce would have been costly and would have entailed having to share his assets with Jayde, whilst the marriage ending by Jayde’s death would not only have avoided this, but added life insurance cover to the pot.

So it comes down to selfishness and greed. I think life behind bars is too good for him.

The Oscar Pistorius case is very different. Depending on what you believe, here we either have a trigger-happy cowboy who blasted four shots through a door behind which he surmised a burglar lurked with no regard for whether he actually posed a danger or not, or we have a bad-tempered bully who lost his temper and fired through a door behind which he knew his girlfriend cowered in a fit of rage.

Those who still support Oscar (pretty much his family, I reckon) think that the state’s appeals were vindictive and only pursued with such vigour because of Oscar’s profile. But if you understand something about our legal system, it becomes clear that this was not the case.

An important source of our law is precedent. This means that decisions of our High Courts and our Supreme Court of Appeal are binding on other high courts and on lower courts. Left unchallenged, Judge Masipa’s judgments would have stood as legal authority.

If it had stood, Pistorius’s conviction of culpable homicide would have eroded the principle of dolus eventualis as a type of intent that distinguishes culpable homicide from murder. Similarly, if the sentence had been left alone, the emphasis that was placed on the offender’s personal circumstances as compelling reasons to deviate from the minimum sentence would have stood as authority.

So the purpose of the appeals was not to exact the maximum hardship for Oscar, but to ensure that courts that are faced with similar cases in the future are guided by solid law. Victims of crime must have the confidence that the perpetrators are punished, and that the punishment fits the crime.

Happily, in both of these cases justice was both done and seen to be done.

Robin Twaddle

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