Between the lines

Oscar Pistorius up for parole: will he go free?

Former athlete convicted of murder could be released if he complies with ‘restorative justice’ process

Paralympian Oscar Pistorius could be considered for parole if he participates in a meeting with the parents of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, whom he shot dead in 2013. 

The sprinter has served half of his 13 years and five months sentence for the murder of Steenkamp, a term that was raised from an original five years for manslaughter by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal in 2017.

He is now eligible for possible release, but must first participate in the country’s “restorative justice” process, which requires offenders to speak with victims or their family members.

A meeting between Pistorius and Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, has reportedly been arranged. The former athlete sent a letter to the couple, which the late model’s parents described as “emotionally distressing” during an appearance on Great Morning Britain (GMB) in last month.

The letter is “thought to be his first contact with the family since his 2014 trial”, said The Independent. When Pistorius took the stand on 7 April that year, he began his testimony by apologising to Reeva’s parents.

“I can’t imagine the pain and the sorrow and the emptiness that I’ve caused you and your family,” he said. “I was simply trying to protect Reeva. I can promise that when she went to bed that night she felt loved.” 

Speaking on GMB recently, Barry said: “One day I would like to talk to Oscar man-to-man.”

But June would like Pistorius to see out his full sentence. “This has been a horror story for us,” she said. “We haven’t had the full story” and “he changed his mind three times under oath to a different story and we don’t believe that’s the truth”.

Steenkamp’s mother doesn’t think that she and her husband’s wishes are “going to have that much influence” over whether Pistorius is deemed eligible for parole. Pistorius’s lawyer Julian Knight told NBC News he was hopeful that the former athlete and the Steenkamps could meet before the end of the year.

The principle of “restorative justice” was formally introduced in South Africa in 1992.

It came about to address “the need to change the country’s retributive criminal justice system, based on Roman Dutch law, in order to accommodate indigenous African legal practices”, Dries Velthuizen, senior researcher at the Institute for Dispute Resolution in Africa, wrote on The Conversation

“These practices are more participatory and reconciliatory” than retributive justice systems, which see offenders’ punishments “considered sufficient compensation to the victim and society”, he added. 

Under this system, offenders are required to assume responsibility for actual harm done and take corrective action. “Important questions remain” about the system as a whole, said Velthuizen, and a significant one is whether the process can “achieve the desired outcome of restoration”. 

But in South Africa, where “there is a dire need to promote good relations among people”, a justice system based on dignity, respect and good relations “might just contribute to a peaceful society”.

What happened to Reeva Steenkamp? 

Pistorius and Steenkamp had been dating for three months before she was brutally killed. The athlete alleged that he had mistaken his girlfriend for an intruder on the night of the murder.

In the early hours of 14 February 2013, Pistorius fired four shots through a locked toilet door in his Pretoria home. Steenkamp, a model and law graduate, was stood on the other side of the door at the time. 

The first bullet hit her right hip, and though the second missed, the third and fourth shots hit her right arm and head, according to police ballistics expert Chris Mangena, who testified in court the following year.

Steenkamp collapsed and “must have had both hands covering her head protectively”. The last shot broke her skull into two fragments. 

The type of bullets in Pistorius’s 9mm pistol “were designed to cause maximum damage”, said The Guardian during the trial. On hitting the target, the bullet opens up and creates six talons, which can “[cut] through the organs of a human being”, said Mangena at the trial.

Pistorius then “bashed down the door with a cricket bat”, said Metro, before calling the police. 

What happened during the trial?

During the initial six-month trial, an emotional Pistorius gave a version of events that took several turns, and he struggled to stay composed in court.

On one occasion, his body “jerked and he retched” as he listened to the pathologist’s evidence, said the BBC’s Pumza Fihlani, reporting from court. “A bucket was placed next to Mr Pistorius, who broke down in tears on several occasions.” 

“A picture started to emerge of a much more complicated man, one born with a tremendous physical disadvantage but into economic privilege in a country where the gap between the haves and the have-nots can be staggering,” said E! online.

WhatsApp messages between Pistorius and Steenkamp were read out in which the deceased had told her boyfriend weeks before her murder: “I’m scared of you sometimes.” 

At another point in the proceedings, the BBC’s Fihlani said there were “silent gasps” in the courtroom when Pistorius took off his prosthetic legs and walked to the bullet-holed toilet door. 

The former athlete had been asked by the defence to demonstrate his height against the door, his head measuring just a few centimetres above the door handle. “On his stumps he seemed self-conscious,” said Fihlani. 

On 12 September 2014, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that the prosecution had not proven beyond reasonable doubt that Pistorius had intended to kill Steenkamp. He was acquitted on the charge of murder, “a verdict with which many South Africans, including legal experts, disagreed”.

The case was brought to the Court of Appeal and in 2015, Pistorius was found guilty of murder.

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