Oscar Pistorius Case Draws Attention To Judge's Background The South African athlete was back in court following last month's culpable homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend. Melissa Block talks to reporter Natasya Tay about the judge in the case.

Oscar Pistorius Case Draws Attention To Judge's Background

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic athlete, has been back in court this week. Last month, he was found not guilty of premeditated murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He was convicted on the lesser charge of culpable homicide. Now the same judge who issued that verdict will decide on Pistorius's sentence. It could range from no jail time to as much as 15 years in prison. The judge in this high-profile case is Thokozile Masipa. In 1998, she became just the second black woman appointed to the bench in South Africa's history, and her own story is a fascinating one. Reporter Nastasya Tay has profiled Judge Masipa and joins me from Johannesburg. Welcome to the program.

NATASYA TAY: Thanks very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: And let's talk about the background of Judge Masipa. She's 66 years old now, grew up in the black township of Soweto under apartheid. And it sounds like her family background was quite poor.

TAY: Absolutely. She grew up in a part of Soweto called Orlando East, in a little two-bedroom house, where she used to sleep in the dining room and actually under the kitchen table when there were visitors. It was a big family. She was the eldest of 10 children. But having said that, five of them died in early childhood. And later on, one of her brothers, I believe, was stabbed to death in his 20s. So she is very familiar also with township crime and also growing up in an area that is very underprivileged.

BLOCK: And it was not at all an obvious thing that she would be able to go to university, much less on to law school.

TAY: Absolutely. She started off at a Catholic school, where she was taught by very strict nuns in Soweto. And she moved around a lot, but she always says that she was never a great socializer and she was always buried in books. She had fairly strict parents as well and they really encouraged her to do something different, to leave the township and make something of her life. And that's exactly what she did. She's done a huge range of odd jobs from being an assistant nurse to a clerk, to a tea girl. But throughout that period, she wanted to go to university and she eventually made it there, graduating with a bachelor of arts in social work in 1974.

BLOCK: Has Judge Masipa talked about how the violence in Soweto, in the '70s and into the '80s, how that shaped her and shaped her view of the law?

TAY: So Masipa actually was, I think, quite involved in the political scene and very engaged in it, particularly because she became a journalist. Now these were really, really restive years in Soweto. It was around the time that Steve Biko was assassinated, and so she was really very much in the thick of it all.

BLOCK: How would you describe Judge Masipa's demeanor during the trial of Oscar Pistorius?

TAY: She's been incredibly inscrutable. She's spent a lot of time with her head resting on her arm and watching things seemingly trying to keep her face very straight. We've all been staring at her for days and days trying to work out what she's thinking, but she rarely very rarely gives anything away. She does have a sense of humor. She's told off people in court as well, and when she feels like the lawyers are getting out of hand, she reins them in. But I believe she actually doesn't even spend her tea breaks, which we have every day in court, with the other judges in the Judges' tea room because she's concerned about other people talking about her case.

BLOCK: What does it mean do you think to black South Africans, and especially to black South African women, that Judge Masipa is handling this very high-profile trial of a famous white athlete?

TAY: Out of the country's many judges, I think there's something close to 250 of them, only 76 are women. So Judge Masipa does remain a rarity in this system. There has been a bit of a backlash in the aftermath of the verdict. And it was a verdict that a lot of people, I think, didn't really expect. And some of that backlash was directed at also her gender and her race.

BLOCK: There have been reports that Judge Masipa got death threats after her verdict in the Pistorius case last month and there's increased security around her now. How much pressure is riding on her sentencing decision for Oscar Pistorius?

TAY: So a huge amount of pressure is on this decision. And I think a lot of people are really going to decide whether or not justice has been done in this matter based on whether or not Oscar Pistorius gets jail time. And that whole verdict of culpable homicide doesn't carry a minimum or maximum sentence. Judge Masipa really has a huge amount of discretion in the matter, so I think a lot of people are going to blame her if she decides not to send Oscar Pistorius to prison. There is a tactical response unit in court. And immediately after the verdict, there was a tactical response unit also outside her house. And people have been sending threats on social media - we're not sure how serious they are - but ultimately, people are very, very emotional about this whole issue. And I think Judge Masipa is going to bear the brunt of that.

BLOCK: That's reporter Nastasya Tay, talking with us from Johannesburg. Nastasya, thanks so much.

TAY: Pleasure, Melissa.

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