Several attempts have been made to justify the decision of Judge Masipa to acquit Oscar Pistorius of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. Regrettably, in my view, none of them are successful.
Burchell* falls into the same wishful thinking errors of Taitz and Cibane, and logical error as Masipa.
Burchell (and Taitz**) observe, correctly, that the (original) Pistorius defence was putative private defence. This is the defence that one mistakenly believes that one is entitled to act in private defence. If the accused makes this mistake, whether he is mistaken about the facts, or (as Burchell correctly adds) the law (De Blom 1977 AD), the accused cannot be convicted of murder. This is because an accused who is mistaken in this way has no intention to act unlawfully. Putting it positively, the accused believes s/he is acting lawfully. The enquiry is entirely subjective – what did the accused actually think or forsee. It is, as indicated, a complete defence to murder. This defence required that Masipa asked whether the accused foresaw the possibility that his conduct could unlawfully kill.
The problem is that, after specifically stating that she was turning her attention to this defence (of putative private defence), she erroneously states that the question is whether the accused foresaw that his conduct could kill [fullstop]. As discussed, this is not the right question.
It does not make her decision right to say, as Taitz and Burchell argue, that if Masipa had asked the right question, she would have (possibly) arrived at the same or right conclusion. We cannot know what conclusion she would have come to if she had asked another question.
Then there’s the problem of error in objecto and dolus eventualis. Error in objecto describes a scenario in which, as Burchell explains: “In terms of this rule, if A intends to kill B and shoots and kills C, whom he mistakenly believes to be B, then A’s mistake as to the precise identity of his victim is irrelevant and he could be liable for the murder of C.”
It is worth noting that there is no mention of the reason why A thinks that C is B. This is in line with our settled law, that takes no account of the reason why A makes his/her mistake. If identity is irrelevant, the reason for any error as to identity cannot be relevant. The identity of the actual victim is irrelevant as is, necessarily, any reason for a mistake as to identity.
Both Masipa and Burchell correctly observe that the facts of the Pistorius case disclose a scenario of error in objecto – in which the identity of the victim is irrelevant.
It is notable also that the defence never argued that the accused had not intended to kill – but only, perhaps, at most, intended to injure. This too would have been a valid defence against murder, but it was not a defence claimed, and certainly not one – from the wording of her judgement – relied on by Masipa as a basis on which to acquit the accused of murder. I don’t see how it could possibly make Masipa’s judgement right to refer to a basis on which she could have relied, but did not.
It is possibly also worth mentioning that her judgement did not turn on a finding – that was crucial in the Humphrey’s case (2013 SCA) – that, although the accused did forsee the possibility of killing whoever was behind the door, he did not accept that risk.*** Again, that would have been valid basis (on our law as it stands) to acquit the accused of murder. However, from the wording of her judgement, this was not the reasons she gave for acquitting the accused of murder.
Returning to what Masipa actually said, and how she actually reasoned. After noting that, in error in objecto scenarios, the identity of the actual victim is irrelevant, she asks what she says is required by the test of dolus eventualis (legal intention): Did the accused forsee the possibility of killing the deceased. This is the wrong question for two reasons. As discussed above, the accused’s defence was that he did not intend to unlawfully kill anyone. This focus – the very basis of the defence of putative private defence – is lost. But, putting that aside, secondly, it is wrong because it deviates from, even contradicts, the recognition that the facts disclose an error in objecto scenario and that the identity of the victim is irrelevant. The question then, correcting also for the defence of putative private defence, should have been: did the accused foresee the possibility of unlawfully killing whoever was behind the door.
Again, it does not help to say this cannot be true because he thought the deceased was in the bedroom. This is the argument that Masipa seems to have finally settled on – and it is fatally flawed in logic. She says: the accused could not have forseen the possibility of killing the deceased, or anyone else for that matter, becuase he thought the deceased was in the bedroom. The fact that the accused thought that the deceased was in the bedroom says nothing about what he thought about the presence of someone else in the toilet. Indeed, it is his defence that he believed someone else was in the toilet.
Burchell perpetuates this error in logic. Referring to his scenario in which he notes that it is irrelevant that A intends to kill B, but kills C, he argues that there can be no intention to kill C if A had excluded in his mind the possibility that the person he thinks is B, could be C. But this is the definition of an error in objecto scenario – let’s take this slowly:
A intends to kill B.
He does not intend to kill C, but B.
He thinks that B (the human body) is, well, B.
In thinking that B is B, he does not think that B is actually C.
So thinking that B is B and not C, he has excluded in his mind, the possibility that B is C.
This is the definition of an error in objecto scenario and there is no dispute that the identity of the actual victim is irrelevant. That is, it cannot help the accused that he thought that B (the human body) was B – where he did not think that B was C. Therefore, it cannot assist an accused who has excluded from his mind the possibility that B is C.
Importantly, the reason for any errror as to identity is also irrelevant. It cannot help an accused who thinks that B is B because B is not C. Our law is clear, in error in objecto secanrios, identity is irrelevant, and it remains irrelevant no matter what an accused’s reasons are for making a mistake as to the identity of his victim.
Masipa’s error was similar. In her view the accused could not be convicted of murder because the accused did not forsee that he could kill C (or B), because he thought C was in the bedroom. In that case, it leaves him thinking that B was in the toilet. As we know from the rules of error in objecto, it is no defence to say that he thought that B was B, and not C.
In conclusion, we have seen several attempts to justify Masipa’s judgment, all of which seem to fail. It does not make Masipa’s judgment right to pretend that her reasons were reasons that would make her judgement right: that she decided that the accused had not accepted the risk of killing the deceased, that she recognised putative private defence, or that she found that the accused only intended to injure the intended target. These were not her reasons and, however valid they may be, it doesn’t help to pretend that they were her reasons. It also doesn’t help to attempt to justify the distortion of our law on dolus eventualis applied to error in objecto and the logical error made by Masipa. The law on error in objecto is clear. Identity is irrelevant – for that very reason it cannot help the accused if he thought that it was B behind the door; nor can it help an accused who argues that he thought that it was not C. The identity of whoever was behind the door remains irrelevant. There appears to be nothing to save us from the inevitable conclusion that Masipa made errors of law and logic.
** “Judge Masipa was right on Dolus and murder http://bit.ly/1wGgNdm”.
*** See Cubans B. , JUDGE MASIPA GOT IT RIGHT: Oscar Pistorius and the intention to kill http://shar.es/1aWktC via @thelawthinker.