Patricia Nell Warren

One Guilty, Three to Go, in South African Murder Trial

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | February 15, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Eudy Simelane murder, lesbian soccer player murder, LGBT rights in South Africa

In a packed courtroom yesterday, Thato Mphithi, 24, one of the three men accused of murdering lesbian soccer player Eudy Simelane, was sentenced to 31 years in prison. He had plead guilty. The other three men are pleading not guilty, so the judge postponed their trials till July. In the street outside, the singing and clapping of a crowd of demonstrating activists went on and on throughout the proceedings.

South African trials are run differently than ours. First of all, there is no jury. South Africa also has abolished the death penalty, so the maximum that Simelane's family and activists could hope for was life in prison. The judge did a lengthy summation of prosecution and defense testimony, during which it began to look like he was heading for a light sentence. He mentioned Mphithi's youth, his lack of education, and the fact that he was drunk when he participated in the crime.

The judge also stated that he didn't view sexual orientation as an factor. He cited the South African constitution, which guarantees equal rights for all, including a number of protected groups like sexual orientation. But South Africa has not developed the concept of "hate crimes" motivated by specific prejudices against protected groups, that we have in the U.S. The demonstrating organizations had hoped that this trial would establish Simelane's murder as a hate crime.

However, the judge sentenced Mphithi to 31 years. As spectators left the courtroom, many were bitterly disappointed at the failure to recognize a hate crime. Some saw the sentence as a light one -- with good behavior, the man would be out of prison in many fewer years. However, others felt that 31 years is a stiff sentence.

The activists, who range from LGBT to feminists to members of the African National Congress (the country's dominant party), will now be concentrating on the July trial.

Despite South Africa's glowing guarantees of human rights in their post-apartheid constitution, the country still has a ways to go to bring reality and rhetoric together. (Not to point any fingers, because the U.S. presently has its own gap between reality and rhetoric to deal with.) For example, rape, and the failure to punish it, whether it's committed against lesbians or heterosexual women, is very common in South Africa.

I will keep reporting on this trial, and this whole issue, in South Africa. And I have to say... I'm disappointed at the meager attention that most people in the U.S. LGBT community -- including many of our own media -- have given to this ongoing important story.

Human Rights Watch has covered the trial intensively. HRW's liveblog gives a lengthy description of the proceedings yesterday.

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I wonder if they have the equivalent of "time off for good behavior." If not, he'll be released at age 55 and I can't imagine a South African prison is the lap of luxury or anything easy...

Yes, SA evidently does have good behaviour. It's mentioned in the HRW blog. Some of the trial spectators are distressed to think that this guy will get out early.

Another well done piece Patricia.

It seems ironic that in South Africe they would have sexual orientation protection but not rape against women, gay or straight. Seems like another milestone ahead of us.

Of course we in America should talk. We have hate crime IF the religous right gets their way, we wouldnt have any rights at all.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | February 15, 2009 12:01 PM

It is a quite violent country beneath the veneer of being the most industrialized country in Africa. Fifty murders a day on average in a population of 47 million. When we were there in 1995 our hosts John and Wilfred made sure we were in safe areas. Add to this the stress of refugees from Zimbabwe and the Aids epidemic and it is easy to imagine why crazy things happen. Thanks Patricia for a sobering reminder of how far many places in the world have to go.

True, Robert. It's very unfortunate. This particular rape and murder is tragic, but considering what life is like in South Africa (including the bloodcurdling attacks on refugees from Zimbabwe) it doesn't surprise me, and I hate saying that.

The tragic fact is that many countries even in the West, have low conviction rates for crimes against women, including Ireland and the UK

Great article , Patricia.

It's great that there was a conviction, and 31 years actually does sound like a lot. I'm not criticizing the sentence, just pointing out that it is a stiff punishment and I'm glad that RSA doesn't have a death penalty. There's a lot we can learn from them.

There were three charges: murder, assault and robbery, and rape. Mphithi admitted to guilt in the first two charges, but insisted he was not guilty of rape, only of attempt to rape. Interestingly, the HRW blog focused on the sexual assault. I.e. there was no mention in the blog of just how, and by whom, the various stab wounds that killed Eudy were delivered.

The other three men are pleading "not guilty," so it will be interesting to see what their story is -- and whether the judge buys it -- when they come to trial in July.