Under South African law a person may only be accused of two types of homicide, that is murder and culpable homicide. Where murder is concerned, the person stands accused of the intentional and unlawful killing of a human being. However, in cases of culpable homicide the person is accused of the negligent and unlawful killing of a human being – you may know this as “manslaughter”, from countless American TV dramas. We are going to look at murder trials and provide a quick summary below.
Although there are no degrees of murder in South Africa, and it is only one crime, there is room for “premeditated murder”, which means the crime was planned ahead of time and makes it even more severe as per section 51 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1997.
When someone is put on trial for murder it is up to the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person is guilty – meaning there must be no chance of doubt regarding their guilt. Because being found guilty of murder carries an incredibly harsh punishment, the courts must be certain of their decision and therefore the onus of proof falls on the prosecution. There must be no room for doubt or possibilities in the state’s case against the defence.
In order to make a trial as fair and impartial as possible, where needed a murder trial may sometimes be heard by one judge who is assisted by two assessors. Although this is not always a requirement as in many criminal trials it is up to the judge to decide if they would like to invite two legally qualified assessors. Where assessors help with factual findings, they will be included on the Bench and are allowed to overrule the judge should they not agree with a question of fact in a trial, even though questions of law will always vest with the judge. It should be noted however that when a murder trial is being heard in a magistrates court, there must be two assessors present unless otherwise requested by the accused.
During a murder trial, if it is evident that the prosecution lacks sufficient evidence, the defence is entitled to ask the judge to dismiss the case with immediate effect. Additionally, due to the right against self-incrimination, the accused may never be forced to testify in a murder – their testimony is voluntary. As we all know from the movies, the defence and prosecution will each call witnesses and cross-examine these witnesses in order to prove their case – however, it is within the purview of the presiding judge to stop time-wasting through drawn-out questioning and unnecessary witnesses.
Once a judge has made their decision, their verdict is delivered orally while backed by thorough legal reasoning. For some cases, a judgment may be written out too, but in most cases, it will be an oral verdict. It should also be noted that the presiding judge may find the accused guilty of a lesser crime such a culpable homicide. Interestingly, the verdict of a criminal trial carries no weight in a civil trial and therefore, even if the accused is found innocent, the family of a victim may still pursue a civil lawsuit should they meet the necessary criteria.
A famous example of a murder trial in South Africa is that of Henri van Breda following the axe murders of his family in their family home in the wealthy De Zalze estate. The sensational trail had conspiracy theorists and armchair legal experts openly passing judgment before the final summary came in, and the close scrutiny on the trial by the media makes it an excellent case study for anyone who wants to see how a murder trial is conducted. Ultimately Henri was found guilty in 2018, three years after the initial news of the attack made headlines.
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