South Africa’s “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius was freed on stringent bail terms Friday to await trial for killing his model girlfriend, a victory in the first of many legal battles that lie ahead for the sprinter.
The 26-year-old paralympic star now faces a gruelling legal marathon that could last years, and one of the most high-profile murder trials since the sensational case of American football legend O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife in 1994.
It was not immediately clear when Pistorius’s trial would begin, but courts are choking with murder cases in South Africa, which is among the world’s most violent countries outside of war zones.
“There is such a backlog of court cases in South Africa. The courts are so full, extremely overburdened. It would probably be a few months before anything happens,” said William Booth, a criminal law specialist the Law Society of South Africa.
Magistrate Desmond Nair gave Pistorius nearly 15 weeks to return to court for a preliminary hearing on June 4, when a trial date may be set.
“It could take up to a year because there are lots of other trials which are going on at the moment and the court only has so much capacity, ” Booth said.
Hanoneshea Hendricks, a criminal law expert at Legal Aid South Africa in the Western Cape province, agreed that “it’s very difficult” to tell how soon the case could go to trial. Some courts have hundreds of cases on their rolls, while others have thousands.
Some experts think the double-amputee track star may get preferential treatment and a possible fast-tracking of his case.
“I am suggesting this is probably going to get priority and it will probably take about six months to go to trial… it’s a high-profile matter,” said professor Stephen Tuson, a criminal law lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand.
Pistorius faces life in prison if the state convicts him of pre-meditated murder, as the case was treated in the hearing that set his bail at one million rand ($112,770).
However if after the investigation is completed the state decides to downgrade the charge to culpable homicide, he could get off with just a caution.
Extreme cases of culpable homicide, with proven negligence and recklessness in the killing, attract a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Pistorius has assembled some of the best legal brains in the country to defend him, headed by high-flying lawyer Barry Roux.
Criminologists say Pistorius, who is the sole direct witness in the case, is likely to recruit top forensic and ballistic specialists to prove his innocence.
Once the trial itself gets under way, the court is expected to schedule around three weeks of hearings. If more time is needed, another two weeks could be scheduled, perhaps months later.
But watchers of South Africa’s justice system say high-profile cases tend to drag on, delaying justice for victims.
“My gut feel is that this case will be dragged out, as is commonplace in South Africa in cases involving those with means. The wealthier the defendant, the longer the journey for those seeking justice,” said the editor of a legal publication who asked not to be named.
By being granted bail, Pistorius will be spared a stint in prison awaiting trial, where inmates sport bright orange uniforms, and where riots have broken out in recent months over food and conditions. Instead, he must simply report to the police every Monday and Friday.
He will thus be able to prepare his defence in comfort, with unrestricted access to his lawyers.
Experts say Pistorius should be mentally ready for the prosecutors’ grilling when the actual trial gets under way — in contrast to his weepy performances at the bail hearing.