Oscar Pistorius likely to serve less than six years in jail

Ex-Paralympic athlete avoids 15-year sentence usually given in South Africa for murder

Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius holds the hand of a relative after sentencing at the high court in Pretoria: he was given a six-year sentence but is eligible for parole after serving three years. Photograph: Marco Longari/Pool/Getty Images

Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius holds the hand of a relative after sentencing at the high court in Pretoria: he was given a six-year sentence but is eligible for parole after serving three years. Photograph: Marco Longari/Pool/Getty Images

 

Oscar Pistorius will become eligible for parole after serving just half of the six-year sentence he was given on Wednesday for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, according to legal experts.

The former Paralympic athlete avoided the minimum 15-year sentence usually handed down in South African courts for murder, as Judge Thokozile Masipa said there were enough mitigating factors in the case to deviate from the prescribed jail term.

These included that Pistorius had shown remorse for his actions and apologised to the parents of the deceased; that he had successfully completed programmes while incarcerated for a year; and that he was a first-time offender and a good candidate for rehabilitation.

“Public opinion may be loud and persistent but it can play no role in the decision of this court,” Masipa said. “I am of the view that a long term in prison will not serve justice.”

Effectively, the judge only increased Pistorius’s previous five-year sentence for the manslaughter of Steenkamp – which was overturned in favour of a murder conviction last December on appeal – by one year.

The prevailing view among outspoken members of the South African public was that Pistorius had gotten off lightly again, as he was paroled last October after only serving one year of his five-year sentence for manslaughter.

This is a view that was also expressed by a number of South Africa’s top legal experts interviewed after the sentencing.

Defence lawyer William Booth told News24 that he believed the sentence was lenient given the seriousness of the crime Pistorius committed in the early hours of Valentine’s Day in 2013, at his upmarket home in Pretoria.

The athlete known as Blade Runner, because of the carbon fibre prostheses he used to race, fired four shots into a small toilet cubicle off his bedroom without warning. Three rounds hit and killed Steenkamp.

Pistorius claims he thought there was an intruder hiding behind the cubicle door who had gained access to the house through an open window. Prosecutors maintained, however, that it was a case of cold-blooded murder following an argument between the couple.

“If you look at his conduct [during the incident] he has probably received a sentence on the lighter side. I would have expected eight or nine years,” said Booth.

Attorney Marius du Toit told reporters he had expected Pistorius to get 10 years, but while the sentence could be considered lenient, it was not wrong.

“It’s going to be tough for the state to succeed on appeal against the sentence, purely because I think Judge Masipa really gave a good judgement. I thought she dealt with everything,” he said.

Du Toit went on to say Pistorius would become eligible for parole after he served half his sentence. “Not that he will get it,” he added, “but it means he can be considered.”

Booth also said it was likely that Pistorius would serve less than the six years as long as he complies with all the regulations, and that this was now a matter for the South African Department of Correctional Services rather than the courts.

Whether Wednesday’s sentencing is the end of a matter remains to be seen. But the case has held the attention of the public for over three years, due to Pistorius’s celebrity status and the issue of violence against women, which is at epidemic levels in South Africa.

Following the verdict the African National Congress’s Women’s League (ANCWL), which has been present at court throughout the entire legal process, said the sentence was an insult.

“First five years, now six years? She is an embarrassment to the justice system,” ANCWL spokeswoman Jacqueline Mofokeng said of Masipa, who also handed down the original conviction and sentence. “It is an insult to women in this country.”

Pistorius’s legal team has indicated that he will not seek leave to appeal the latest sentence to the Supreme Court of Appeal.

To appeal would leave Pistorius open to the possibility of a higher sentence if the decision went against him. The National Prosecution Authority has indicated it is considering its options in relation to whether it should appeal or not.