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Lane: The presumption of guilt

BY JOE LANE | APRIL 16, 2014 5:00 AM

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This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Oscar Pistorius wasn’t supposed to be a killer; he was supposed to be a runner, a role model, an inspiration.

To most, Pistorius was an Olympic and Paralympic track star from South Africa. He was the double-amputee that proved anything is possible. He was “Blade Runner, the fastest man on no legs.”

That all changed, however, on the morning of Feb. 14, 2013, when Pistorius shot and killed his then-girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp.

More than a year removed from the incident, Pistorius has spent that past few weeks in a South African courtroom, reliving that morning over and over during his trial.

Throughout the cross-examination, Pistorius’ audible sobbing makes even the most apathetic of listeners see themselves in the courtroom, experiencing his emotional response to the prosecutor’s difficult questions.

Numerous times, Pistorius has broken down as he describes the details of that morning and the months that followed. Pistorius contends that when he fired his gun through the bathroom door, he believed the individual on the other side not to be his girlfriend but a dangerous intruder.

As the world watches the trial unfold and finds bits of information that have trickled through the cracks by media coverage, they are quick to form (and offer) opinions on the track star turned slayer.

Pistorius’ case is unique in that it receives much more coverage than other high-profile individuals’ homicide trials because not only is Pistorius of sizable fame, but his reputation arises from athletic prowess, a fact that gives a second army of media outlets — ESPN and other sports networks — an excuse to cover the trial extensively.

Perhaps it is this widespread coverage that has garnered an excess of preconceived notions around the country. We seem to have developed an extreme confidence in our collective opinion that Pistorius is a liar who killed Steenkamp, not mistaking her for an intruder, but in cold blood.

It is this widespread certainty among the American public (well outside the country in which the crime was committed and is being tried, no less) that sickens me.

This type of hair-trigger mass condemnation, unfortunately, is a familiar phenomenon.

This same collective certainty was also present before, during, and even after the trial of George Zimmerman. Confident that they knew the entire story, Americans were quick to throw away the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and subsequently undermine the legal system in the United States (and, now, South Africa).

After the Zimmerman case, I found myself questioning people that remained steadfast in their belief that Zimmerman was guilty of a hate crime, just as I will continue to question those that claim Pistorius’ guilt prior to the verdict of the trial.

In the United States, 12 people make the decision as to whether an individual is guilty — not the entirety of the American public. These 12 people are the most well-prepared citizens to deliver their verdict when the time arrives. They are more informed, more aware of the physical and emotional states of those involved and more educated on what happened in the courtroom and during the incident than any person other than those involved in the crime.

While the South African judicial system relies on the verdict of a single judge, rather than a jury of Pistorius’ peers, the idea holds true. It is true, that these cases are often predictable, but on the off chance that our preconceived notions provide us with false conclusions, let’s avoid turning “innocent until proven guilty” upside down.


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