Black Female Judge Who Will Decide Oscar Pistorius’ Fate

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Thokozile Matilda Masipa is a former social worker turned journalist turned lawyer turned superior court judge. She’s “eloquent” and highly respected by her peers, but perpetrators should tread lightly.

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South Africa’s biggest murder trial is under way, and there’s a black woman at its helm.

Oscar Pistorius—one of that nation’s most renowned paralympics professional athletes and a former Olympian—stands accused of murdering his 29-year-old model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

With the world watching, Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa—and only Masipa—will decide if Pistorius intentionally killed his girlfriend or if he sincerely thought she was an intruder and thereby killed her by accident, as Pistorius claims. Unlike murder trials in the United States and most modern judicial systems, South Africa does not have trials decided by jurors because it was nearly impossible to find jurors not influenced by the racial effects of apartheid.

Masipa has had an impressive career. Her tough background, which The Root culled from global news reports, lends credence to court watchers’ speculation that she will not be influenced by the defendant’s emotional breakdowns or the crying and vomiting in court. Here are seven things to know about the judge:

1. Judge Masipa was born in Soweto—the Johannesburg township famous for the anti-apartheid youth uprisings in the 1980s—in 1947, just one year before apartheid became an official ideology that was supported by a leading political party in the country’s 1948 political elections.

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Participants in a march to commemorate Youth Day in the Soweto Township on June 16, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

2. Masipa received a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a specialization in social work, in 1974 and a law degree in 1990 from the University of South Africa. In fact, she passed South Africa’s version of the bar exam (pdf) in 1990—the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

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                                                                      The University of South Africa (UNISA) at night.

3. Masipa put all that schooling directly to use, quickly exhibiting a knack for public service. Before her judgeship, she worked as a social worker and then as a crime reporter covering racial-discrimination cases. Some reports say that her time as a journalist influenced her decision to practice law.

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4. Masipa maintained her respect and fondness for the field of journalism after becoming a judge. In an 2003 interview, she described how she wants judges to be more transparent and use the media to communicate their court decisions and judicial processes to the public.

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5. She’s no pushover. Masipa once handed down a 252-year prison sentence to a guy who raped three women during a series of house robberies, and a life sentence to a police officer who killed his wife during an argument about their divorce settlement.

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6. In 1998 Masipa became the second black woman to be appointed a judge in the High Court of South Africa.

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7. Masipa’s selection for the Pistorius murder trial was all luck and a routine allocation of court cases—not a “special selection,” a representative from the country’s Department of Justice explained.

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                                                                                    Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa (center)

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As Oscar Pistorius faces trial for murder, a large group of South African women have become like a shadow that the runner seems unable to shake.

In this notoriously violent country, a vocal group of women, most of them black, say they believe Pistorius’ girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was a victim of an all-too-common crime, one that crosses all social and racial boundaries: domestic violence.

Violence against women is stunningly common in South Africa, where a woman is killed every eight hours by her intimate partner, according to a recent study by the well-respected Medical Research Council.

No one doubts that Pistorius killed his girlfriend of three months—the sprinter admitted to the shooting in a sworn affidavit just days after the incident on Feb. 14, 2013. He claims he mistook her for an intruder and did not mean to shoot her four times through a locked bathroom door. The prosecution argues that he knew she was behind the door, and that he meant to kill her.

The suggestion that Pistorius, the famous double amputee whose carbon-fiber blades on the track earned him the moniker “Blade Runner,” may have abused his girlfriend has forged an unlikely kinship in a society still fractured around racial lines. Black women have marched regularly outside the Pretoria courthouse where Pistorius’ bail hearing was held in February 2013.

 

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