Oscar Pistorius: What next?
Oscar Pistorius is due to appear in court on Monday 20 August 2013. It is being widely reported by South African media that the South African National Prosecuting Authority (“NPA”) will bring two extra charges, both relating to separate incidents involving the reckless discharge of a firearm.
According to E News Channel Africa, the additional charges relate to the discharging of a firearm at a Johannesburg restaurant and for the discharging of a firearm through the sunroof of a vehicle. Both incidents separate form the murder charge and at different periods of time.
What about time limits? And, can the prosecutors combine these charges with the main offence?
In South Africa, insofar as criminal offences are concerned, there is no statute of limitations placing a time limit on criminal law prosecution. As is the case with many other common law jurisdictions, there is, generally speaking, no time limit on serious criminal offences. Clearly, if a substantial period of time has elapsed since the commission of the crime and the prosecution thereof, a judge may rule that the time delay infringes on a defendant’s right to a fair and speedy trial. Typically however, where a crime has been committed, a State is entitled to prosecute that crime at any stage where the evidence dictates a prosecution may be successful, even if a decade or more after the fact.
Similarly, in international law, war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity are specifically excluded from any form of statute of limitations by international conventions such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which states at Article 29:
“The crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court shall not be subject to any statute of limitations”
Conversely, most international legal systems apply a prescription or statute of limitations insofar as civil matters are concerned. In South Africa, the applicable piece of legislation is the Prescription Act 68 of 1969. All actions must be instituted within three years of the Plaintiff becoming aware of the action. There are, of course, a few nuances and exceptions but largely, a plaintiff has three years to institute a civil claim. If he does so after the three-year period, the claim would have prescribed by the effluxion of time and it operates as a complete defence against any civil action. So, the next time that pesky retail store that keeps calling you about the jeans you purchased in the 90’s, think about prescription…
With that in mind, it is completely within the ambit of criminal law to charge Oscar Pistorius with two further crimes that are, on the face of it, unrelated to the murder charge. There would be no point in running new trials to charge a defendant with the reckless discharge of a firearm so the State Prosecutor will combine these offences with the murder charge when the court convenes on Monday. The Court will ultimately decide whether to add these charges, but it is certainly possible, and looking at media reports, seems entirely likely.
What happens from here?
The NPA has confirmed that the defendant will “definitely” be charged with premeditated murder and further charges are “possible”. It is likely the defendant will be made formally aware of all the charges he will face and a trial date will be set. It is unlikely that anything further or material will take place, other than a trial date and formal knowledge of all crimes Oscar Pistorius is charged with. No one can know exactly when the trial will be heard but reports are suggesting that it will be early 2014. The NPA and judiciary cannot be seen to be giving Oscar favorable treatment and in South Africa one normally waits at least 6 – 18 months for a trial date, depending on the particular court and available resources. That being said, there is international interest in this matter and a speedy trial date will be in all parties’ interests.