Oscar Pistorius: is five years in prison justice for Reeva?

Oscar Pistorius arrives in court for sentencing

Prison sentence provokes outrage on Twitter, but some say Oscar Pistorius should not be jailed at all

LAST UPDATED AT 14:51 ON Tue 21 Oct 2014

After an emotional seven-month trial, Oscar Pistorius was calm and composed today as Judge Thokozile Masipa sentenced him to five years in prison – but outside the courtroom, reactions were more extreme.

The defence team said it expects the athlete to serve only ten months behind bars and the remainder under house arrest, while the prosecution believe he will have to serve at least 20 months.

The prospect of Pistorius leaving jail within a year provoked outrage on Twitter, with the hashtag #Nojustice trending worldwide.

Sky News reporter Robert Nisbet said the overwhelming reaction on the streets of Pretoria was also negative. "He took the soul of another person. How can that be right?" one man said outside the court.

But Reeva Steenkamp's mother June says justice has been served. She told reporters "it doesn't matter" that Pistorius could be out of prison in ten months. "He's going to pay something," she said.

Pistorius's family also said they were satisfied with the sentence and added that the athlete will "embrace this opportunity to pay back to society".

Professor Stephen Tuson, of Wits School of Law, told News24 it would be "inadvisable" for Pistorius to appeal against the sentence as he "got off lightly" for culpable homicide.

Masipa sentenced the athlete to a maximum imprisonment of five years for killing Reeva and a concurrent three-year prison sentence, suspended for five years, for discharging a firearm in a Johannesburg restaurant in January 2013.

In The Independent, Chris Maume says Masipa "might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice". A non-custodial sentence would have "sent the wrong message" that if you are famous enough, you can get away with manslaughter, while a longer hail sentence "would have felt like grandstanding", says Maume.

But in The Guardian, Simon Jenkins thinks Pistorius should not be going to jail at all. Masipa's argument was "meticulously reasoned", says Jenkins, but "beyond the cause of consistency, imprisoning Pistorius can serve no purpose".

He describes imprisonment as "brutalism" and says no one will be more or less deterred by the length of his sentence.

"Finding why he behaved as he did, and working to prevent others doing likewise, would be the most useful outcome of his crime. That is unlikely to happen in a prison." 


Oscar Pistorius sentenced to five years in prison

21 October

Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison for the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp, whom he shot dead on Valentine's Day last year.

In a court in Pretoria, Judge Masipa also handed Pistorius a three-year sentence, suspended for five years, for negligently discharging a firearm in a crowded restaurant in Johannesburg in January 2013.

The two sentences will run concurrently.

The prosecution had wanted Pistorius to serve at least ten years in prison, while his own lawyers had argued that he should serve a three-year community-based sentence, such as 16 hours of domestic cleaning a month. 

Immediately after the verdict was read out, members of the athlete's family told reporters that there would be no appeal against the sentence, and that they expected Pistorius to go directly to prison. His legal team said their understanding was that he will have to serve ten months, one sixth of his sentence, in prison before being considered for house arrest.

However, Nathi Mncube, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, suggested Pistorius would have to serve at least one third of the prison sentence, around 20 months, in jail. He added that the NPA has an "appetite" to appeal but has not made a decision to do so yet. Both sides have two weeks in which to lodge an appeal.

Here is what the court heard:

9.35am: Oscar Pistorius is asked to stand for his sentence. Masipa says on count one of culpable homicide, he should serve a maximum of five years in prison. On count two, three years imprisonment, suspended for five years with the condition that the accused is not found guilty of a crime where there is negligence with the use of a firearm. The sentence in count one and count two shall run concurrently.

9.30am: Judge Masipa is looking at the sentencing guidelines from case law, including the cases raised by the defence in which the accused was convicted of culpable homicide but escaped prison. Masipa says that in her view "none of these cases are important". She outlines why she thinks facts in these cases are "dissimilar" to those in the present case.

She says that the degree of negligence in Pistorius's case means that the sentence put forward by the defence witnesses would "not be appropriate" considering the circumstances.

9.10am: Masipa runs through the mitigating and aggravating factors in sentencing. The facts that Pistorius shot not one but four shots into a small toilet cubicle and had undergone training in firearms are "very aggravating", she says. However, he is a first offender and seems remorseful. She accepts the defence's evidence that he had tried to apologise to Reeva's parents privately but they were not ready so the attempt failed. Masipa says she disagrees with the state that mental and physical facts should not be taken into account in sentencing because they had already been taken into account in the conviction. Mental and physical factors "ought to be considered together with other relevant factors", she says.

The judge states that society cannot always gets what it wants. "Courts do not exist to win popularity contests but exist solely to dispense justice," she says. Nothing I say or do today can reverse what happened to the victim, says Masipa.

9.00am: Masipa says she is satisfied that prisons can accommodate prisoners with the accused's needs and says she has no reason to believe that Pistorius would present Correctional Services with an "insurmountable challenge". For example, if he needs a bench in the shower it would be "unreasonable" to think that he would not be provided with one.

It cannot be disputed that a pregnant woman belongs to one of the most vulnerable groups of people, says Masipa. Yet a pregnant woman will be sentenced to jail if such a sentence is warranted.

The judge says it would be a "sad day for this country" if the court created an impression that there is one law for the poor and one law for the rich and famous.

Masipa admits she had "a feeling of unease" over the defence's "overemphasis" of the accused's vulnerability. Yes, he is vulnerable but he also has excellent coping skills, she says. Thanks to his mother, he rarely saw himself as disabled and excelled as a top athlete against the odds, even competing against non-disabled athletes.

8.55am: Masipa is summarising the evidence from the prosecution witnesses. The prosecution called:

  • Kim Martin: Reeva's cousin, who described the victim's life and the impact of her death on the family
  • Moleko Zac Modise, the acting national commissioner of South Africa's Correctional Services department, who defended the prison service and assured the court that it could cater for Pistorius's needs

Masipa says she was not impressed by Annette Vergeer's evidence, describing it as "slapdash, disappointing and had a negative on her credibility as a witness". On the other hand, she was impressed by the evidence given by Moleko Zac Modise. She says she has no hesitation in viewing his evidence as "true and reliable".

8.45am: Judge Masipa tells the court that although she has two assessors to help her, the decision is "mine and mine alone". She said she has taken into account the nature and seriousness of the offences for which Pistorius has been convicted, as well as factors such as retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation.

Masipa is summarising the evidence from witnesses heard in the sentencing hearing. The defence called:

  • Dr Lore Hartzenberg, Pistorius's personal psychologist, who held grief and trauma counselling sessions with the athlete
  • Joel Maringa, a social worker from the Department of Correctional Services, who recommended a three-year community based sentence
  • Peet van Zyl, Pistorius's agent, who detailed his client's charity work
  • Annette Vergeer, a social worker and registered probation officer, who claimed that prison facilities would not cater to Pistorius's needs


Oscar Pistorius sentence: what will Judge Masipa decide?

20 October 2014

Five questions for Judge Masipa

Tomorrow Oscar Pistorius will finally discover whether he faces jail time for the culpable homicide of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The prosecution wants him to serve at least ten years in prison, while his own lawyers have argued that he should serve a three-year community-based sentence, such as 16 hours of domestic cleaning a month.

The athlete's brother, Carl Pistorius, has vowed to stand by his younger sibling regardless of the sentence. "We cannot speculate ahead of final sentencing but what I do know for certain, regardless of the outcome, the three of us [himself, Oscar and their sister Aimee] will stand together and continue to stand together," he told ITV News.

Reeva's half-sister Simone Cowburn has made a plea in the Daily Mail for Judge Thokozile Masipa to hand down a heavy prison sentence. "Community service and house arrest are ridiculous," she told the newspaper. "These should be for people who are stealing or other minor offences. Not shooting somebody. Reeva deserves justice."

South Africa's Correctional Services department today denied claims that it had already prepared a prison cell for the Paralympian at Kgosi Mampuru II, formerly known as Pretoria Central Prison.

Even if Pistorius is handed a prison sentence, he could still have up to 14 days of freedom if he decides to appeal against his sentence or conviction, says South Africa's New Age newspaper.

Judge Masipa would have to hear the appeal submissions within the next two weeks and decide whether or not another court might come to a different conclusion. However, she could decide to refuse any request for bail following the sentencing tomorrow.

Other commentators in South Africa are hoping that the legacy of the trial will reach beyond Pistorius and improve conditions for the thousands of less recognisable South Africans in prison.

Gushwell Brooks at the Daily Maverick has called for an overhaul of the whole "terrible" system. "Pistorius' defence team has compellingly argued that prison is an unsuitable and unsafe place for the athlete to rehabilitate," he says. "But this is true, too, of the thousands of other offenders living behind bars."

Robyn Leslie, who works at the Wits Justice Project, which investigates remand, detention and miscarriages of justice in South Africa, believes Pistorius's "wealth, status and notoriety" will mean any prison time will be "uneventful" for him.

Writing in The Independent, she says: "The question of Pistorius's sentence – and whether it will include time in jail – should stop fascinating South Africans and the world alike. Rather, we should use this surge of interest in our criminal justice system to shine a light on the poor, dispossessed and uninformed who are trapped perilously within it."


Oscar Pistorius sentencing: 'society demands a prison sentence'

17 October 

Oscar Pistorius's future was on the line in court today as the prosecution and defence made their closing arguments in his sentencing hearing.

Pistorius faces up to 15 years in jail after he was found guilty of culpable homicide last month for shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day in 2013. Judge Thokozile Masipa also found Pistorius guilty of one charge of negligently discharging a firearm in a crowded restaurant in Johannesburg in January 2013.

Defence lawyer Barry Roux described Pistorius as a "victim" and urged the judge to return a community-based sentence. He pointed to the final judgment, which found that Pistorius had genuinely mistaken Reeva for an intruder, and said that no punishment can be worse than the experiences he has suffered in the last 18 months. 

However, prosecutor Gerrie Nel said that the interests of society "demand a prison sentence" and that a minimum of ten years was required. He reminded the court of the "heart-wrenching" evidence given by Reeva's cousin Kim Martin. He ridiculed Pistorius for claiming that he was a victim and accused him of "shamelessly" using his disability as a mitigating factor.

Here is what we heard today:

11.25am: Prosecutor Gerrie Nel begins to pick apart the defence's argument about the attacks on Pistorius in the media. Judge Masipa interrupts to assure Nel that she will be disregarding those points. He argues that the only "reasonable sentence would be a long-term incarceration" and urges the court to let the Correctional Services department take responsibility for what happens to Pistorius after sentencing. If they cannot cater for him, then we come back to court, says Nel. He adds that "it is not even a contentious issue" because Correctional Services has made it clear that they can accommodate Pistorius's needs.

Nel says that the principle of uBuntu and restorative justice is "not a bad one" but is "not a principle that can be considered in this case at all". He says this is a matter so serious that the interests of society "demand a prison sentence". He agrees with the defence that Pistorius is unfit to possess a firearm again. Asked how long a prison sentence he is suggesting, Nel says that the "minimum that society will be happy with is ten years in prison". 

Nel completes his closing argument and Judge Masipa allows defence lawyer Barry Roux to put a few final corrections to the court. Roux notes that Pistorius does not have rails in his home but does have a bench in his bathroom instead. He points out that other serious cases of culpable homicide have resulted in restorative justice. Masipa adjourns the court after thanking both sides and telling the attorneys that she was "very impressed" by the way they have conducted themselves throughout the trial. Sentencing will reconvene on Tuesday 21 October.

11.00am: The fact that Pistorius is sorry Reeva is dead "is not remorse", says prosecutor Gerrie Nel. The accused, who coped "brilliantly" in life in spite of his disability, is now "shamelessly" using his disability as a mitigating factor, says the prosecution. Nel suggests that Pistorius uses his disability when it suits him. He tells the court his house has no railings in the shower or toilet, yet because he faces prison, he suddenly needs railings. "If that is so, then it is disingenuous," says Nel. A remorseful or anxious person would not go out to a nightclub, he adds.

The prosecutor praises the testimony of Zac Modise, acting head of South Africa's Correctional Services, and condemns that of defence witness Annette Vergeer, a social worker and registered probation officer. Vergeer, who painted a very negative picture of South Africa's prisons, gave the court a "sketchy", "outdated" and "negatively biased" report, says Nel. He tells the judge he was "flabbergasted" when Vergeer admitted that she based some of her report on a speech made in 2005. Would it not be a bad day if this court decided that our prisons are not good enough for extradition from other countries around the world, asks Nel.

10.45am: Prosecutor Gerrie Nel turns to the technical aspect of his argument. He claims Pistorius is guilty of "gross negligence", bordering on dolus eventualis, a murder charge that means the accused is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his actions. Nel cites six points from the judgment that support his argument: the size of the toilet; the calibre of ammunition; the fact that a "reasonable person" would have realised the consequence of their actions; Pistorius knew someone was behind the door; he acted too hastily; and he used excessive force.

Nel suggests there are still aspects of the case that do not make sense and claims Pistorius did not act like a "reasonable person" from the moment he heard the window open. He says Pistorius did not ask whether Reeva had heard the noise in the bathroom nor establish whether she had heard him. Pistorius is "not a victim", says Nel. "He cannot be a victim, he caused it." The prosecutor imitates the accused: "I'm a victim, feel sorry for me, the media victimised me. When I wanted the media to capture my brilliant athletic performance, I loved them; when the media write about my trial it's unfair."

10.10am: Prosecutor Gerrie Nel takes the stand. Society's interests are at stake, he tells the judge. Society will want to know what happens if someone fires four shots through a door into a closed cubicle. We have thought about the accused for months, says Nel. Now is the time to think about the deceased.

Nel says that Reeva's cousin Kim Martin, who gave evidence earlier this week, was not only representing the family, she was representing society. He argues that of all the noises discussed in court – the screams, the cricket bat, the shots – it was the "softly spoken words" of Martin that "trounced" them all. Martin's "heart-wrenching" evidence gave insight into the impact of the crime, says Nel.

The prosecutor turns to the money offered by Pistorius to Reeva's parents. Nel says money for a sold car for the death of a loved daughter cannot be seen as a positive gesture. "The offer is nothing but an attempt to influence sentence," he says. Nel argues that the timing of the offer – made in between the judgment and the sentence – shows that the offer is "in fact something terribly negative".

9.50am: Roux quotes from Pistorius's 30-day mental health evaluation. He is not a danger to society, says Roux. His condition is also likely to worsen and the risk of suicide might increase if he does not receive proper medical care.

Roux reminds the court that Zac Modise, acting head of South Africa's Correctional Services, yesterday conceded the general section of a prison would not be suitable for Pistorius. Roux again raises concerns about the risk of disease if Pistorius is permanently detained in a hospital unit. His negligence needs to be balanced against his disability and vulnerability, says Roux. "There needs to be compassion." The attorney insists that a community-based sentence is a real punishment and is not restricted to the 16 hours a month proposed earlier this week.

In conclusion, Roux urges Judge Masipa to give "serious regard" to a community based punishment, restorative justice and to strive to put "some patches on the pain".

9.30am: Roux cites from other culpable homicide cases in which the perpetrators did not go to prison. He talks about a similar case in which a man heard a bathroom window being opened in his home and fired shots into a door, only to discover that it was his wife. In another case, an employer accidentally shot his helper's grandson in the head and was left emotionally devastated.

Pistorius was young at the time of the shooting, says Roux. He did not have the wisdom people gain in later years. Roux says that no punishment can be worse than his experiences in the last 18 months. "The denigration, the humiliation, the ridicule, the blame, the false allegations – ongoing, worldwide," says Roux. "That's what he was subjected to. He stands there, giving evidence and crying, knowing the whole world is watching. He was absolutely exposed."

Roux turns to the money offered to Reeva's parents. "It is not about the money," says the attorney. It is just showing the court that the accused is taking responsibility for his actions. June and Barry Steenkamp have said they do not want the lump sum offered by Pistorius and have said they will be paying back monthly sums paid to them over the last year. Roux suggests the court can order that the money now goes to charity. Pistorius is crying silently as Roux tells the judge: "He wants to make good as far as possible."

9.00am: Defence lawyer Barry Roux is presenting his closing argument. He begins by saying that it is "beyond any argument" that the loss of a child is "the greatest devastation". But he says it is necessary to look at the facts as found by the court. Judge Masipa has accepted that Pistorius genuinely, although erroneously, believed there was an intruder in the toilet, not Reeva. Roux quotes from the judgment, in which Masipa said Pistorius did not subjectively foresee that he would kill the person behind the door, let alone the deceased, as he thought she was in the bedroom at the time.

There was a "high degree of negligence", admits Roux. But he says this cannot be isolated and must be taken in the context of the individual. "Whatever way we see it, the accused's actions were to some extent dominated by vulnerability and anxiety," says Roux. There was not any "deviousness" or "conscious unlawfulness", he says. 

Roux notes that some members of society would want to see the maximum penalty imposed. Some would want the death penalty, he says. "But that is not the test." Roux says Pistorius must be sentenced with the "interests of society" in mind. On a slight tangent, Roux tells the court that a man on a bus had recommended he read a book called uBuntu and the Law by Nyoko Muvangua and Drucilla Cornell. The text, about the southern African concept of uBuntu, which roughly translates as humanity, explores the way in which restorative justice and compassion can be applied in law for the best interests of society.

The defence lawyer says that in the beginning there was "an accused and a victim". But he says "very shortly after this, the accused became the victim". Roux says he has "never, ever" seen such unfair attacks as on Pistorius shortly after the shooting. False reports, spread by media and social media, claimed he had crushed Reeva's skull with the cricket bat and that he was taking steroids. Roux says he can see why the National Prosecuting Authority refused to allow Shrien Dewani's trial to be televised. Pistorius was made to look at a photo of the deceased, whom he loved, before the image was published worldwide under the banner of "cold blooded murderer", says Roux. The "extreme emotions" suffered by the accused are not in dispute, says the lawyer.


More about Oscar Pistorius:

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: as it happenedOscar Pistorius was 'on phone to ex' on eve of shootingOscar Pistorius: 'there is still a missing link' Oscar Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide - but not murderOscar Pistorius: How long might he face in jailWhat is Oscar Pistorius's defence and can it succeedOscar Pistorius involved in nightclub fightOscar Pistorius: some defence witnesses refused to testifyOscar Pistorius judge's concern over mysterious missing cordOscar Pistorius: seven key quotes from the murder trialSix questions for Judge Masipa Family denies athlete took acting lessonsReeva 'had no time to scream'Pistorius told: 'You are getting deeper into trouble'Pistorius describes night he shot Reeva SteenkampPolice release photos of crime sceneFive questions Pistorius will need to answerPistorius used bullets that cause 'maximum wounding'


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