South Africans reacted with shock when a sympathetic judge today sentenced Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius to six years in prison. Many consider the term lenient in the murder of his girlfriend after a prolonged case that made global headlines for years, due in part to the defendant’s celebrity status.
The minimum prison sentence for murder in South Africa is 15 years, but the defense argued for a shorter sentence, saying Pisorius’ disability and emotional state were mitigating factors, CNN reported.
Judge Thokozile Masipa agreed, citing mitigating circumstances for the lesser term, and saying Pistorius is genuinely remorseful and a good candidate for rehabilitation.
She described Pistorius as a “fallen hero” who will never be at peace, CNN reported.
Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated when he was 11 months old, became an Olympic athlete nicknamed the “Blade Runner” for his high-tech, curved prosthetic limbs. Months after competing in the 2012 Olympics with prosthetic limbs, his status as a global icon turned to notoriety when Pistorius shot girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Feb. 14, 2013 through a locked bathroom door. He claimed he thought it was an intruder.
Both sides can appeal the judge’s sentence. Pistorius’s lawyers said they will not file an appeal.
Pistorius was found guilty of a lesser charge of culpable homicide (manslaughter) in September 2014. Judge Masipa ruled in that case too, saying Pistorius acted negligently when he shot Steenkamp, but didn’t do it intentionally, and sentenced him to five years in prison.
The appeals court overturned that charge and upgraded it to murder, describing the case as “a human tragedy of Shakespearean proportions,” New York Times reported.
Many South Africans were outraged by the sentencing, Time reported. On Twitter some called it a “disgrace,” an “embarrassment” and “disgusting,” saying lesser crimes such as drug trafficking, fraud and theft often get longer terms.
Johannesburg-based columnist Pearl Boshomane said the light sentence was reflects women’s low standing in the country. “Women’s lives are worth absolutely nothing. Our rapists don’t go to jail. Our murderers barely get punished,” she tweeted.
Some said Pistorius’ celebrity status contributed to a lenient sentence. “Justice in South Africa? The mitigating factor is wealth. The deciding factor is renown,” Richard Poplak tweeted.
“Minimum for murder is supposed to be 15. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her, but he took a life. He needs time in jail as a lesson for everyone else,” Cape Town Uber driver Eric Selaelo told Time.
Judge Masipa anticiated the backlash, Time reported. “Our courts are courts of law, and not of public opinion,” she said at the sentencing.
Masipa mentioned a moment in the trial when Pistorius walked across the courtroom on his stumps to demonstrate how powerless he was without his prosthetic limbs. On the night of the murder, Pistorius was not the powerful Olympian of global fame, but a terrified and vulnerable man stumbling in the dark, she said.
Masipa surprised many legal experts who predicted a 10-year sentence, New York Times reported.
Among other mitigating factors, the judge said she considered Pistorius’s disability and the fact he is a firsttime offender. “I am of the view that a longterm
imprisonment will not serve justice,” Judge Masipa said. “He’s a fallen
hero who has lost his career and is ruined financially. The worst is that having taken
the life of a fellow human being in the manner that he did, he cannot be at peace.”
The sentence reflects the judge’s belief that Pistorius is guilty of what amounts to
an accidental murder, not one with intent, said Marius du Toit, a criminal defense lawyer, former prosecutor and judge.
But the six year sentence will likely anger a public that is much less sympathetic to Pistorius, said Gareth Newham, a criminal justice researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.