21 Oct 2014

Pistorius gets five years – but may serve less than one

Oscar Pistorius is given five years in prison in a sentence the judge hoped was “fair and just both to society and the accused”. But legal experts say he may serve just 10 or 20 months in jail.

The Paralympian stood in court and showed little emotion as the judge delivered the sentence after an hour of explaining her deliberations.

He then sat in the dock, head bowed, as the judge thanked the counsel and court officials for their efforts during the seven-month trial that was supposed to last just three weeks.

Judge Thokozile Masipa said that an appropriate sentence must be “fair and just, both to society and the accused”: a non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to society, she said, but a long sentence would also be inappropriate, not showing enough mercy.

She sentenced Pistorius, 27, to five years in jail for the first count of culpable homicide, pointing out the high degree of negligence, and three years sentence for a firearms charge, wholly suspended for five years. “Society cannot always get what they want”, she said, but added: “Courts do not exist for a popularity contest, but only to dispense justice.”

Some legal experts have said he is unlikely to spend even half his five-year sentence in prison. State prosecutors said he could be released on house arrest after one third of the full sentence, 20 months, while his lawyer suggested this could happen after just 10 months.

It would be a sad day for this country, if there was an impression that there’s one law for the poor, and another for the rich and famous. Judge Masipa

After the sentence, the hashtag #nojustice was trending in Johannesburg, and the ANC Women’s League said it would be “making submissions to the State on our view that an appeal in this case is in the interest of the judicial system”.

As he was escorted out of Pretoria high court to a holding cell by police, he grabbed at the hands of family members in the courtroom, before being driven away from court in a police armoured vehicle for his first night behind bars since killing his girlfriend. Pistorius is expected to serve his sentence in a hospital wing of the nearby Pretoria Central prison.

The Olympic and Paralympic sprinter was cleared of the murder of his 29-year-old model girlfriend on 12 September, but was found guilty of culpable homicide, or manslaughter. She was killed by three bullets fired through a toilet door by her then-boyfriend. Pistorius has always maintained he fired the gun in fear, believing that an intruder had broken into his home.

Chief defence lawyer Barry Roux said Pistorius could serve just 10 months, with the rest of the sentence under house arrest, while a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority said that the minimum requirement is usually a third of the sentence – in this case 20 months – in prison. One South African lawyer, Ulrich Roux, said that the commissioner of correctional services could order house arrest after just one sixth of a sentence, 10 months, for good behaviour in prison.

Regardless of whether he is released from jail early, he will be unable to compete in athletics for five years, said the International Paralympic Committee, which will enforce the full five-year ban. This means the sprinter will not be able to participate in the Rio Paralympics or Olympic Games, but could compete at Tokyo in 2020.

Defence had called for three years’ house arrest and community service, while the prosecution had called for a minimum 10 years prison sentence. In South Africa, culpable homicide carries a maximum 15-year jail sentence, but there is no minimum term.

Seven months of the Pistorius trial - look back on each day of the trial

One law for rich, one for poor?

Referring to the high-profile nature of the case, with the accused being one of South Africa’s most famous sportsmen and celebrities, Judge Masipa said: “It would be a sad day for this country, if there was an impression that there’s one law for the poor, and another for the rich and famous.”

She added that the loss of life cannot be reversed, and described Steenkamp as “young, vivacious and full of life”, but said she hoped that her judgement would provide some closure for the Steenkamp family.

Speaking after the sentence was handed down, the Steenkamp family’s lawyers said that a five-year jail term was “the right sentence”, adding that “justice was served today”.

Life in a South African prison

In explaining how she came to her decision, Judge Masipa went through all the evidence presented by the defence and the prosecution.

Defence witnesses had called for a three-year sentence, served under house arrest, along with community service. They said his disability, along with his fame, would make prison life very difficult.

However Judge Masipa said that although Pistorius’s physical disabilities and emotionally fragile state should be taken into account, she did not agree that South African prisons could not accommodate his needs.

She was also damning about the evidence given by probation officer Anette Verger, who suggested Pistorius could be gang raped if sent to prison.

“Her evidence was slapdash, disappointing and had a negative impact on her credibility as a witness,” she said. “I found her evidence perfunctory and unhelpful, something quite disturbing given her 27 years of experience.”

She added: “I am satisfied that the correctional services department is suitably equipped to deal with the inmates with special needs.”

Family ‘accepts’ sentence

The Paralympian’s brother and sister gave an interview on the eve of the sentencing, saying they “never doubted” their brother Oscar’s account of what happened on the night he killed his girlfriend, and would continue to stand by him. After the sentence, Carl Pistorius tweeted a photo of him and his brother as children on his Twitter account.

Arnold Pistorius, the accused’s uncle, said that the family “accepts” the sentence. “Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society,” he said in a brief statement to reporters.

Both sides have 14 days to appeal against the sentence, extending the trial once again, but neither defence nor prosecution have yet indicated whether they will be doing so.