Pistorius case: South Africa's legal system in the spotlight

(CNN) -- Why was Oscar Pistorius released on bail?

Chief Magistrate Desmond Nair said defense attorneys had met the threshold for proving the "exceptional circumstances" required by South African law for the release of a suspect charged with premeditated murder.

He said prosecutors had failed to prove that Pistorius was a flight risk or had a propensity toward violence.

What are the conditions of his release?

Announcing the original terms of Pistorius' release, Nair set bail at 1 million rand -- or about $112,000.

He banned Pistorius from drinking alcohol or returning to the property where the shooting happened. Nair also said Pistorius must surrender his passport and not approach any airports.

However, in March, Judge Bert Bam said the athlete's attorney could hold his passport instead of the court and that Pistorius was entitled to use it to travel outside South Africa.

Pistorius should report his itinerary a week before leaving and hand his travel documents back over to his lawyer within 24 hours of returning to South Africa, he said.

Bam also said Nair had not included the prohibition on Pistorius returning to his home or a requirement that he report to a police station twice a week in the written court order he signed.

This meant those provisions, which the magistrate only mentioned verbally in court, should be ignored, he said.

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel told the court he planned to serve Pistorius with an indictment on June 4.

Why was the issue of premeditation such a focus of the bail hearing?

There is only one crime of murder in South Africa -- and premeditation is not a requirement. It is simply defined as the intentional unlawful killing of another human being.

However, premeditation plays a role for bail and sentencing. For the purposes of bail, if the charge is premeditated, it falls into a category with the most serious crimes, for which the defense must show exceptional circumstances to obtain bail.

South African law makes it difficult for defendants accused of premeditated murder to get out on bail. The law requires evidence of "exceptional circumstances" to justify release, and the onus is on the defense to prove this. Grant said it was more difficult to deny bail to someone on the lesser charge.

Nair upgraded the charge against Pistorius to premeditated murder, saying he could not rule out the possibility that the track star planned Steenkamp's death. But the magistrate said he would consider downgrading the charge later.

Where will Pistorius' trial take place?

Despite being South Africa's lower courts, regional magistrates' courts can hear all criminal cases barring treason, so it is possible that Pistorius could be tried in such a court.

However, Grant said the high court, which hears cases deemed too serious for magistrates' courts, could be in a better position to hear Pistorius' case.

"Given the interest in this and given the possible sentencing that might follow -- if it is established that this is premeditated -- the high court would be in a better position to hear it and to sentence," he said.

A high court trial could take place before a single judge or before a judge and two lay people, who are usually legal experts such as advocates, academics or retired magistrates, who are known as "assessors." These assessors are restricted though to answering questions of fact.

Their role is to advise the judge, who is not obliged to follow their guidance on questions of law, but they may overrule a single judge on questions of fact.

Why will Pistorius face a judge rather than a jury trial?

South Africa abolished jury trials in 1969, while the country was under apartheid, due to fears of racial prejudice by white jurors.

Grant said the change showed that despite it being the "very dark old days," some members of South Africa's judiciary and legislature had been somewhat enlightened.

When will Pistorius' trial begin?

Some high-profile or important cases in South Africa have been fast-tracked and pushed through within a month, but that is "highly, highly exceptional." What is more likely, said Grant, is that the trial would get under way within about six months.

Examples include the fast-tracking of trials during the 2010 World Cup.

How long is it expected to last?

If the trial follows an ordinary course, Grant said, he would expect it to last four to six months -- but that would depend on how aggressively the defense challenged the prosecution case.

"They could dispute everything, in which case there could be 'trials within trials,' " he said.

But he said the defense would have to balance that "against not appearing to challenge things for the sake of it" and alienating the court.

Grant's understanding is that there are few witnesses that could be called -- neighbors among them -- but that if character was to be raised as an issue, "it could cause an explosion of witnesses."

"It could just drag on forever."

What about appeals?

If the trial is heard in a magistrates' court and Pistorius is convicted, he could potentially appeal from the magistrates' court, to the high court, to the supreme court and even eventually to South Africa's constitutional court.

If the initial court did not give him leave to appeal, he could petition South Africa's chief justice for permission.

The right to appeal depends on whether, based on the facts of the case, the initial judge or magistrate believes a different court could possibly reach a different verdict.

South Africa's highest court, the constitutional court, used to be only for cases regarding constitutional matters, but a recent act of parliament broadened its remit.

Why have the media been able to publish speculation?

At the time of the bail hearing, Grant said he believed the sort of opinions being expressed about the case in South Africa's media had been responsible.

"At this point in time, all we can do is speculate," he said. "The right of freedom of the media, the right of freedom of speech is entrenched in our constitution and is highly respected."

But he said that right had to be balanced against the privacy rights of the accused and whether speculation would jeopardize their right to a fair trial.

If media were reporting information only they were privy to that could affect the case, for example, that could be regarded as "improper and irresponsible," although still may not breach contempt of court laws.

What are the sentencing guidelines for premeditated murder?

For premeditated murder, the mandatory sentence in South Africa is a life sentence, which in practice is 25 years unless someone can prove extraordinary circumstances.

Extraordinary circumstances could include a combination of number of factors: for example, that it was a first offense, the age of the person and in Pistorius' case, his disability and the impact this could have had on his actions.

However, Grant said if the court accepted the prosecution's case -- that Pistorius chased Steenkamp into the bathroom and "hunted" her down -- his defense team would be hard-pressed to convince the court that there should be any considerations that should override the repugnance that should be felt.

What happens if Pistorius is found not guilty of premeditated murder?

If Pistorius faces trial for premeditated murder but is found not guilty, he would face a "competent verdict" or lesser charge of culpable homicide, which is based on negligence.

Pistorius is not claiming self-defense; he is claiming to have been mistaken about his need for self-defense. He is denying that he intentionally unlawfully killed Steenkamp.

Grant said the defense boiled down to Pistorius saying "I made a mistake."

If the court were to rule that the mistake was unreasonable -- based on what an objective, ordinary South African would do in the circumstances of the accused -- he would be found guilty of culpable homicide.

Grant said he would expect a court to probably conclude that it is unreasonable to fire at anybody through a closed door regardless of whether they were an intruder, because of the value of human life.

"I'm expecting that if he beats the murder charge, he is in very grave jeopardy of being convicted of culpable homicide," he said.

What would the sentence be if Pistorius were convicted of the lesser charge of culpable homicide?

If Pistorius is convicted of culpable homicide, no minimum sentencing legislation would be triggered. "Courts are able to exercise their complete and ordinary discretion," Grant said.

This means, theoretically, Pistorius could get a non-custodial sentence if convicted of culpable homicide. Grant said there had been examples of people killing a loved one accidentally where they had avoided jail.

If, however, the court took a view that Pistorius had been grossly negligent, Grant said, he would guess the runner could be jailed for up 15 years.

What impact will the charge of attempted murder faced by the former chief investigator in the Pistorius case have on the Olympian's trial?

Grant said the charges against investigator Hilton Botha would have little if any impact on the Pistorius case, bearing in mind that in countries around the world, the testimony of convicted persons is used against fellow inmates.

"The defense would need to undermine his credibility as a witness, and I don't see how this shows that he is an untrustworthy witness," he said.

"The charges do not, in my view, undermine the credibility of the investigating officer as an honest witness relating to what he discovered at the Pistorius home. If the officer faced charges or had been convicted of crimes of dishonesty, that may well be a different matter."

Would Pistorius be given special treatment in prison if he was convicted and jailed?

CNN's team in Johannesburg understands the double amputee would not receive special treatment, with even blind prisoners being placed with sighted prisoners in South Africa.

But, ahead of his release on bail, the African National Congress Women's League said the athlete was already getting special privileges, adding that his family could visit him outside visiting hours, unlike relatives of other inmates.

"If Pistorius is denied bail, he must be moved to a proper prison facility with others accused of similar crimes," it said in a statement.

"A strong message must be sent out that wealth and celebrity cannot give you an advantage over the law."

What is the reputation of South Africa's legal system?

Grant said that South Africa was proud of its constitution and had a well-respected judiciary and that its substantive criminal law was "similarly advanced and progressive and very well considered."

"The problems that we're facing are more of a systemic procedural nature.

"We have an incredibly strained police force that's not particularly well-trained -- they're massively overloaded -- and we're struggling with issues of corruption within the police force and possibly even within the prosecution service," he said.

Grant said that, regrettably, wealthier South Africans had access to better legal resources than most of their compatriots.

"Unfortunately, most South Africans don't have that extent of resources available to them. They wouldn't have available to them the best possible defense lawyers, but in a strange sense, this is not a problem unique to South Africa. Money buys for you a degree of protection. That's of course a universal problem."

In March, the South African government's midterm report noted that "The effectiveness and ability of the criminal justice system to serve as a deterrent against crime is unfortunately still under threat of being undermined by the actions of a small number of those who serve in it."

It continued, "Since 2009, investigations have uncovered 1,529 persons in the criminal justice system who were possibly involved in corruption-related crime.

"For the year April to September 2011, 192 officials were criminally charged regarding corruption, resulting in 86 officials being convicted, while a further 296 officials were departmentally charged."

What are conditions like in South African jails?

South Africa's jails were put under the spotlight during the extradition hearing of Shrien Dewani, the Briton who stands accused of ordering a hitman to murder his new wife in 2010.

One of the defense's arguments -- not upheld -- against extradition was that Dewani would not be safe in South African custody.

His lawyer quoted figures from a South African report suggesting that almost half of prisoners believed sexual abuse was a feature of life in South African jails.

Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, project coordinator for the Johannesburg-based Wits Justice Project, told CNN that South Africa's constitution and its bill of rights with regards to prisoners' rights were among the best in the world.

However, she said, overcrowding meant "unfortunately that doesn't necessarily translate into practice."

"A legacy of apartheid is that prison cells are still unfortunately a place where prisoners can be abused," Erfani-Ghadimi said.

South African public broadcaster SABC cited the Correctional Services Department as saying prisoners with disabilities were treated with dignity and enjoyed the same rights as able-bodied inmates.

However, a "statement of agreed factual findings" in the case of inmate Dudley Lee -- who contracted tuberculosis while imprisoned -- may point to a different reality. Lee said he "begged, bullied and bribed" to get the medication he needed.

CNN's Brian Walker contributed to this report.