Published on 20 Feb 2013

Pistorius trial reminds me of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope boxing

Watching the inevitable brouhaha surrounding the bail hearing of Oscar Pistorius has been a ringside seat into a world where there are no reporting restrictions.

No jury means no restrictions on what journalists can write or publish electronically. In short, it has been a complete free-for-all and a feeding frenzy.

Even when we have non-jury courts in the UK, as in the Diplock courts in Northern Ireland, where major criminal cases are heard concerning paramilitary activity, the media are still very much bound by the contempt of court act.

Basically this means you are restricted to the “10 points” from the moment proceedings are deemed active – from the point of arrest, for instance. Those points cover the facts, from name, address, age, and plea through to bail conditions and so forth. You cannot speculate about whether he or she did it. The quaint olde worlde concept is that the person in the dock is presumed innocent until due process finds otherwise or acquits.

And from the moment matters come to court you are limited to report fairly, contemporaneously and accurately what was said in court and, usually, only what was said in the jury’s hearing, as opposed to legal argument when they are sent out.

In theory, transgressing any of the above lays the media open to contempt proceedings, about which, in theory, the courts take a dim view.

There’s an argument to be had that successive attorneys general and the system in general have allowed the contempt act to fall into, well, contempt, and there are plenty of victims of trial by tabloid who would readly agree the act has not been enforced as it might.

The dangers of prejudicing a trial – with or without a jury – are obvious if unfettered speculation is allowed. Or so goes the argument.

But is it all that obvious?

The Pistorius story may well show us something rather interesting here. I think most observers would be in no doubt that the accused was pretty roundly hung out to dry in the court of public opinion, in the forum of the blogosphere, in the frenzy of trial by Twitter.

And yet. And yet. One is reminded of the infamous rope-a-dope boxing strategy . You let your opponent come out and swing wildly at you as you cower on the ropes, giving very little back. Then, in round six or whatever, you floor him as he’s given all he’s got. Ask George Foreman about the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, when Muhammad Ali famously dismantled the fearsome Foreman with precisely this approach.

So now in South Africa we have seen the prosecution case shouted from the streets and the rooftops by the media – shouted in fact virtually anywhere and everywhere except an actual courtroom, until very recently. Mr Pistorius and his defence counsel have kept their c ounsel.

Until now. So after all the “bloodied cricket bat”, the “screaming rows”, the “drugs”, the litany of guilt presumed before the facts are examined, we now find in court that the witness to the screaming was 600 metres away and could not identify the voices. We find that the investigator admits the bedroom was pitch-black inside. We find the same investigator did not read the label properly on the bottle of “testosterone”.

We find in fact that just when the insatiable public wants a new angle is it getting one.┬áIt’s called a defence.

Rope a dope?

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19 reader comments

  1. Chris says:

    I’m just curious if it was established that it was actually pitch black in the room. My understanding was that if the lights had been off and the drapes closed then it could conceivably be pitch black. I did not see Botha admit that the lights were actually off, nor does that jive with Pistorious being able to find his legs and handgun from it’s holster. He was ambling around on his knee stumps at the time, mind you.

    Anyway, no question defense team has played their cards close to their chest, and brilliantly so. Expect him to get bail.

    1. Groucho Marx says:

      You cannot be serious-bail?

  2. Chris says:

    It’s not hard for a defense, when the plaintiff doesn’t have to testify.

  3. Chris says:

    Pritorius’ claims were allowed to be taken at face value.

    Witnesses weren’t able to defend themselves.

    Only prosecution cross examined.

    You know, it’s a lot different than a trial

  4. Des Murphy says:

    ‘OR’ could we be looking at ‘If the glove dosen’t fit…then acquit’ again!?

  5. Mark Watkins says:

    The 600m was later challenged/changed to 300m, and poss. before the time of your post! Your post/blog has cert. been quoted elsewhere on the net 13:30 (Telegraph). I think you are trying to comment on an unfolding event as “facts” and “rumours” come out. So your blog isn’t a true picture but a snapshot, yet written in stone! Why not focus on a non-moving target, a poor woman who was kiled, and as part of the media, should really be getting to the bottom of that? That would be a “fairly” accurate thing to do, rather than seemingly wanting to be charmed by the best performer in court, even when that person is defending an alledged killer. Your boxing arguments are floored.

  6. Teb Mog says:

    Well, it looks it was just an honest accident after all. The man believed 100% that they were being attacked and he acted accordingly. It’s just unfortunate it wasn’t a burglar. But had he been right that it was a burglar in the who had entered through the toilet window, then the man would be hailed a hero now.

  7. Brennan says:

    Even by Pistorius’ own account, he fired a gun repeatedly at an unknown person behind a closed door. Hard to see how it could be considered anything other than murder.

  8. John says:

    Nice to liken the aftermath of such a horrible occurrence to a boxing match (he said, sarcastically).

    The reason the South African public are so obsessed with this case is because it is so emotionally charged for all:

    Emotionally charged because anyone who lives in the Johannesburg/Pretoria area knows the emotional state of living on edge – even (and especially) at night in your own home – because of the amount of citizens who are brutally attacked and tortured (often to death) in their own homes by “burglars” – something which occurs on a regular basis, if not to you, then “to a family you know” (or who is known by someone you know).

    Emotionally charged because every decent person would feel extreme sympathy for a man who all his life has had the disability he has, and because only someone in his position could understand the incredible fear and panic he must have felt if he thought that night was his and his girlfriend’s turn, and he wasn’t even wearing his prosthesis, if his version of events is true.

    Emotionally charged because if his version of events is not true, then the sheer loathing (another emotion) takes over for someone who is so aggressive that he could do such a thing to his lovely young girlfriend.

    This case might be “entertainment” worthy of being compared with boxing matches to people who live in relatively safer nations. But it is not that to us here in South Africa.

    1. PaulMc says:

      Very well said John. I understand how South Africans feel as regards security as I have South African relatives. It was a culture shock to me on visiting them to see they lived in a gated community with burglar bars on their windows and heavy shuttered grills for their doors, even a lockable grill to close off the stairs at night! All that and armed response too. They still didn’t feel totally secure.

  9. Desiree says:
  10. Philip Edwards says:

    Alex,

    I have only once performed jury duty.

    It was a harrowing experience that left me in no doubt the only way you could judge guilt or innocence is if you heard ALL the evidence, that innocence MUST be presumed or the whole process becomes worthless. Even then it is difficult.

    Journalists have responsibilities as well as rights. They must be as answerable to democratic courts as anyone else, or no law would stand. This also applies to so-called social media, though obviously it is much harder to enforce – but that is why we employ legal technicians to draught our laws and analyse precedent.

    The Pistorius case is horrible enough without turning it into a tenth rate gossip circus or mere media infotainment.

  11. Teb Mog says:

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with shooting repeatedly at a door when you are certain a burglar is gonna walk out of it. Why shoot once, and then he comes out and shoots you?

    1. John G says:

      Strange that he didn’t first check that his girlfriend was safe, if he really thought there was an intruder in the house. Unless…

    2. John says:

      Only South Africans understand that if you catch a burglar in your toilet, there are probably more already inside your house somewhere because in South Africa they rarely, if ever, come alone.

      You’ve got to incapacitate the one you caught so that there’s one less to defend yourself (and especially your loved ones) against, and because every second counts, you shoot to kill and you make sure he’s dead, before he takes turns raping your loved one while you’ve been tied up by him and the others who he probably came with.

      In many, many of these cases, shooting one has often caused the others to flee. You shoot to kill when you catch an intruder in your house in South Africa because if you don’t, hell only knows what they are going to do to you and your loved ones in your home.

      That South African reality is the background which must justly be the foundation of any judgement of Oscar’s or anyone else’s actions in horrific scenes like this. This (South Africa) is NOT a normal country with a normal society – for a country not at war it is extremely, extremely violent, and that fact must be the foundation for the judgement of Oscar’s case, otherwise justice is not served.

      He never denied shooting Reeva. He was the one who initiated the contacting of the medics and the police. The state’s case thus far is full of holes. The South African reality must be taken into account for the trial to be totally fair and just. But will it?

  12. Prince Charles says:

    By his own admission Pistorius shot and killed someone through a locked bathroom door. It does not matter who that person was, he shot to kill. That he failed to establish who that person was or whether he knew who it was is irrelevant to the act – his intention under both scenarios was to kill. He knew it was someone and that is murder.

    It does not matter what led up to the act, where he or she was prior to the shooting, how much arguing took place, which windows were open or closed or anything else. Pistorius found himself in front of a locked bathroom door with a gun in his hand and the certain knowledge that there was a human being on the other side. In that moment he had a decision to make; kill or do something else less lethal (fire a warning shot, run away, call for help – whatever). He chose deliberately to kill that person and that’s murder.

    He cannot claim he was defending himself against a threat because by his own admission he had no idea who was there. Killing someone under those circumstances is murder. Killing the wrong person doesn’t mean he didn’t intend to kill someone. That he is famous and she was pretty doesn’t make the event ‘a tragic mistake’. In the seconds before he pulled the trigger he made a fully conscious decision to kill whoever was behind that door – it was murder.

  13. Macca says:

    Teb Mog

    You really are very silly…of course it is wrong, this case shows the very consequences of adopting that stance….surely in a civilised society you are not suggesting that we open fire at the first opportunity just in case we might be in danger…we don’t live in the wild west …

    1. Teb Mog says:

      Obviously you have never lived in a violent country. It’s very nice to judge Oscar from the comfort and safety of your English home while sipping tea. Just to put you in the picture:

      -The highest number of cops shot dead in South Africa in 1 year is 218. I doubt that more than 5 cops get gunned down by criminals in Britain in a whole year.
      -Over 161 000 people murdered in South Africa since 2004.
      -Over 43 people murdered on average everyday in South Africa.
      -The world average for murder is 7.6 per 100 000 people. Murder in South Africa is 36.5 per 100 000.
      -Nearly 16000 people were murdered in SA in the twelve months between 2011/2012.

      How many people do you know who own a gun? In South Africa, I don’t know any adult male in my neighborhood who doesn’t own a gun. What I’m saying is, with so many guns, illegal and otherwise, mistakes are bound to happen.

  14. Joeninho says:

    I hear congratulations are in order, Alex. Well done and keep up the good work. Not bad for a “discredited” journalist.

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