Oscar Pistorius in court, will he escape jail?

  • Agencies, Johannesburg
  • Updated: Oct 13, 2014 16:17 IST

Fallen paralympic hero Oscar Pistorius returned to court Monday for his sentencing hearing after he was convicted of culpable homicide in the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The double-amputee track star last month escaped a murder conviction in a verdict that shocked the country and fuelled criticism of South Africa's legal system.

Kicking off what is expected to be a lengthy sentencing process, the defence team will bring mitigation arguments before Judge Thokozile Masipa in the High Court in Pretoria. Prosecutors will follow by arguing for aggravating circumstances.

The process is expected to last up to four days, with Masipa then likely adjourning court and announcing her sentencing decision at a later date.

The "Blade Runner" could face as much as 15 years in one of South Africa's notoriously brutal prisons or could dodge a jail term altogether with a non-custodial sentence after being found guilty on the equivalent of a manslaughter charge, but not guilty of premeditated murder.

The court will begin by hearing defence witnesses testify on why Pistorius should not serve time behind bars.They are likely to argue that the country's prisons are not suited for his disability and that the 2012 London Paralympics silver medallist is a first time offender.

Lawyer David Dadic said the defence will "heavily expand on their trial argument regarding Oscar's remorsefulness" in killing his girlfriend of Reeva Steenkamp.

"The biggest factor, however, which the defence will raise is, of course, the fact that Oscar is a first time offender," he added.

In turn, the state will call witnesses to testify on why he should serve the stiffest penalty, raising the issue of his history of negligence with firearms.

After the sentence is handed down, both the state and defence can appeal, a legal process likely to drag out for years. In September, Judge Masipa ruled the 27-year-old did not knowingly shoot to kill 29-year-old model and law graduate Steenkamp on Valentine's Day 2013.

The sprinter admitted he fired four hollow point bullets through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home, but said he believed he had been shooting at a burglar.

Masipa's ruling outraged many South Africans, including lawyers who believed she misinterpreted the definition of murder and questioned whether the justice system is failing the crime-plagued country.

Pistorius is currently out on bail of one million rand ($90,000). He had to sell his posh house inside a gated compound in Pretoria, the scene of the crime, to fund the cost of the trial, and has withdrawn from competitive sport since his arrest.

The trial which began on March 3 was broadcast live on television and radio, feeding insatiable local and international media interest.
The athlete cut a lonely figure in the dock, at some points sobbing and retching loudly while testifying.

What kind of sentence will Oscar Pistorius get?

Judge Thokozile Masipa has wide latitude as sentences for such a crime can range from a suspended sentence and a fine to as many as 15 years in prison.

South African lawyers vary widely in predictions about what kind of sentence Pistorius will get. Some say he is unlikely to go to jail because defence lawyers will successfully argue that the athlete is a first-time offender with a disability that would subject him to particular hardship in prison, while others anticipate that Pistorius will be sentenced to some prison time because of the severity of his crime.

"I think that the probabilities are that the judge will send him to prison for a certain period, but not a very long one," said George Bizos, a human rights lawyer. He did not specify the length of a possible jail term.

There are "clear aggravating and mitigating factors" that could influence the judge's decision-making but that it was difficult to accurately predict the penalty because the "sentencing law is so individually applied," said Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer in the public law department at the University of Cape Town.

There are, however, past culpable homicide sentences in South Africa that provide some context for the Pistorius case.They include a singer known as Jub Jub whose murder conviction was overturned and replaced with a culpable homicide conviction this month, dropping his prison sentence from 25 to eight years.

He was arrested after a 2010 drag race in which he and another man ploughed cars into a group of schoolchildren, killing four and seriously injuring two.

In a separate case, a taxi driver's murder conviction was also reduced to culpable homicide last year, cutting his prison time to eight years instead of 20. The driver's car had hit a train, and 10 children died in the accident.

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