According to local media, former South African Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius showed little emotion, but looked relieved, as the judge handed-down his sentence. But the decision has angered many and divided opinion about whether it is severe enough.
Pistorius, a South African Paralympic gold medallist, was found guilty of shooting and killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
His original manslaughter conviction was increased to murder by the Court of Appeal in December 2015.
Guilty of murder
Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over the original manslaughter case, has delivered the latest sentence saying circumstances had changed, as Pistorius had now been found guilty of the more serious crime of murder.
The prosecution and large sections of the South African community had demanded a 15-year prison term, the prescribed minimum term for murder, saying Pistorius had shown no remorse for the 2013 killing.
In South Africa, the court is obliged to impose the minimum sentence (15 years) unless there are “substantial and compelling” reasons to reduce it.
Judge Maispa found such reasons, reducing the sentence to six years. Under the South African judicial system, the ‘blade runner’ is eligible to apply for parole after serving half the term, so it is possible he will only spend three years behind bars.
The sentence has left many outraged, including women’s groups who say it is an insult to all women in South Africa. Others have gone so far as to say that Judge Maispa is an ‘embarrassment’ to the justice system
Legal commentators have said the sentence is much lighter than expected.
However, in her full explanation, Judge Maispa said she had used her discretion to sentence appropriately based on her hearing of the complete evidence.
She said the court had a duty to correct the prevailing misperception that Pistorius had intentionally killed Steenkamp “to prevent unjustified outrage from the public.”
“Our courts are courts of law, not courts of public opinion,” she remarked.
The Judge also said the mitigating factors – that Pistorius was vulnerable on his stumps, believed there was an intruder, immediately tried to save Steenkamp’s life and was, in the judge’s view, genuinely remorseful – “outweighed” the aggravating factors, which she listed as using a lethal weapon, with high-grade ammunition, firing four times with no warning shot, and “knowing full well” there was someone inside the toilet cubicle.
Not a case of ‘partner violence’
The Judge came to the view that the case was not one of gender violence, as there was no indication of an abusive relationship.
While she acknowledged the pain of the Steenkamp family as “real and tangible”, the Judge also noted that Pistorius’ life would never be the same …
“He is a fallen hero, who has lost his career, and been ruined financially. He cannot be at peace,” she said.
Judge Masipa did, however, reject the defence’s argument that Pistorius ought to be hospitalised or serve a non-custodial penalty, saying the sentence ought to be “unpleasant, uncomfortable and painful”.
The Judge took an hour to deliver the sentence, commenting that Pistorius was not a violent person, was unlikely to reoffend, had showed remorse, and that she had to balance the interests of society, the offender and relatives of the victim.
State may appeal
Pistorius’ defence team said it would not appeal the sentence.
However, the prosecution is yet to decide whether it will file an appeal on the grounds of leniency.
It has 14 days to decide.
Supporters of the victim’s family said:
“The law has run its course. There is nothing [the family] can do about the sentence. Nothing will bring Reeva back. The best thing to do is to maintain a dignified silence.”
Those found guilty of murder in Australia face a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The offence also attracts a standard non-parole period of 20 years – which is a ‘reference point’ or ‘guidepost’ for the judge when determining how long the defendant should spend in prison.