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Shock in South Africa over 6 year sentence for ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius for girlfriend’s murder

Double amputee and former Olympian Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to 6 years in prison for the 2013 murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. (Video: Reuters, Photo: MARCO LONGARI/POOL/Reuters)

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee who dazzled the world by running in the 2012 Olympics on blade-like prosthetic legs, was sentenced to 6 years in prison for the 2013 murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.

Fifteen years is the minimum sentence for murder under South African law unless the judge finds mitigating circumstances justifying a lesser penalty. Judge Thokozile Masipa said she had indeed found reason for a lighter sentence, in particular, remorse.

Pistorius was originally convicted of manslaughter, called “culpable homicide” in South Africa,  in September 2014, and handed a five-year sentence after a long televised trial that riveted audiences across the globe. An appeals court overruled Masipa, the trial judge, and determined that Pistorius was guilty of murder, exposing Pistorius to the stiffer sentence. Many observers expected a sentence of between 10 and 15 years, with credit for time already served.

Some were reported to be shocked by the fact that after the appeals court declared his crime a murder, effectively repudiating Masipa, she then increased his sentence by only a single year. Masipa, apparently anticipating the reaction, said as she read her decision that “public opinion may be loud and persistent but it can play no role in this case.”

At the trial, prosecutors said the two had been arguing and that Pistorius, a trained gun hobbyist, lost it and intentionally killed Steenkamp in a fit of anger. Pistorius, now 29, claimed during his trial that the fatal shooting was a tragic accident. Steenkamp, then 30, was staying with him in his Pretoria home. He said he was awaken while sleeping, heard a noise coming from his bathroom and, suspecting the presence of an intruder, grabbed his 9mm pistol, walked on his stumps 16 feet across the room and fired four bullets into the bathroom door of his Pretoria home, unaware that Steenkamp was there.

The crime took place on Valentine’s Day in 2013, just about six months after Pistorius ran in the London Olympics on the springy prosthetic legs that earned him the nickname “Blade Runner,” along with worldwide glory, endorsements and the status of an iron man. His trial, the global media attention and his fall from grace have been compared to that of O.J. Simpson.

Among the mitigating factors cited by Masipa were that Pistorius was vulnerable at the time of the shooting, walking on his stumps rather than his prosthesis; that he believed the person in the bathroom was an intruder and that he had taken genuine steps to save her life after realizing what he had done.

In addition, she said, he had demonstrated remorse, apologizing to Steenkamp’s parents in the courtroom, after they had refused to see him and accept his apology in person.

He remains, she said, “a good candidate” for rehabilitation. In addition, she said, “he has already spent some time,” 12 months, serving his original sentence. And, she added, he is not a violent person.

Early reaction in the media was harsh. “Six years is not long enough when you consider that he hasn’t even been honest about his motive for killing her,” Ellesandro Soares Chaves commented on thee BBC’s Facebook page. “He is a murderer and a liar who can’t even own up to what he did and that behaviour should add years to his sentence and automatically disqualify him for any leniency.”

“Disgusting. It’s almost as if Oscar Pistorius is a privileged white man in a deeply racist country,” added Kenny Martin.

During a sentencing proceeding last month, Pistorius, in a move that appeared calculated to elicit sympathy and a lighter sentence, removed his prosthetic legs and hobbled across a courtroom on his stumps. The athlete — once known as “the fastest man on no legs” — walked without his prosthetics in an apparent bid to underscore his vulnerability on the night of the attack.

Witnesses on his behalf argued that he had suffered psychological damage since the original verdict and “constant harassment from the media,” and that, if anything, he should be hospitalized rather than jailed.

“We see his humanity now,” his attorney, Barry Roux, said at his sentencing hearing. “This is the person at 3 o’clock in the morning. When he was on his stumps, his balance was compromised. He was anxious, he was frightened.”

“It was not the man winning gold medals that must be judged,” Roux continued. “It is a 1.85-meter (6-foot) man standing on his stumps at 3 o’clock in the morning in the dark that must be judged.”

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She said both parents had testified that they had forgiven him, despite their grievous loss.

“‘The object of sentencing is not to satisfy public opinion,'” she said, quoting a precedential case. “‘The court cannot allow itself to be diverted from its duty to act as an independent arbiter on the basis that it will find favor with the public.'”

She took note of Pistorius’s athletic heroics in the face of his severe handicap. But, she said, he has since deteriorated into a broken man. “It is easy to see here that we are dealing with two different persons,” she said. “He is ruined financially….He cannot be at peace.”

“Recovery is possible,” she said.