Africa

Has Oscar Pistorius got off lightly with six-year sentence?

Oscar Pistorius leaves the court after his sentence hearing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, July 6, 2016. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Oscar Pistorius seemed relieved as he was led away to serve his sentence

Once the world's golden boy and the poster child for the resilience of the human spirit, Oscar Pistorius will now forever be remembered as a murderer.

It has been a gruelling trial for the man known as the "blade runner", not just inside the Pretoria courtroom where his fate was decided but in the court of public opinion.

To say many South Africans are shocked at the sentence would be a gross understatement.

While what the public thinks has no bearing inside a courtroom, in the eyes of the man on the street, Judge Thokozile Masipa has failed Reeva Steenkamp.

There is a prevailing sense that Pistorius got off lightly.

There were groans in the courtroom shortly after the sentence was read out. Pistorius, though, seemed relieved - and understandably.

I cannot remember a time when someone convicted of murder was sentenced to just six years in South Africa.

His brother, Carl Pistorius, who has made no secret of his disdain for the bad press around his brother, tweeted: "I have the utmost respect for Judge Masipa; she is a remarkable woman. #Wisewoman."


'Too sympathetic'

But the kind words for Judge Masipa have been few.

The judge, perhaps anticipating the backlash that would ensue, pointed out in her judgement that people would be unhappy regardless of what sentence was imposed.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Judge Thokozile Masipa was accused of being too sympathetic to Pistorius

In a packed courtroom, Judge Masipa outlined why she believed Pistorius didn't need to spend a lengthy time in prison.

According to her, he has apologised to Reeva Steenkamp's family for his actions, he had been remorseful throughout the trial and he had tried to save Ms Steenkamp's life - a sign that he had not meant to harm her.

Still, six years is a big deviation from the prescribed minimum for murder of 15 years.

Some believe this is because the judge was "too sympathetic to his disability" and argue this was first demonstrated when she initially convicted him of culpable homicide, rather than murder.

The judge has been accused of being moved more by Pistorius' court antics, such as his display of vulnerability in court, than by how the law says murderers should be punished.

This may only be perception, but in her case it is damaging.

Outside court, legal experts told me she was "sympathetic and empathetic" to Pistorius. The expressions on their faces weren't as measured, it seemed to me they came close to calling her a bleeding heart.


'Not gender crime'

Some also suggest that it was also that fame that bought him the leniency of the court, although Judge Masipa would argue otherwise.

Pistorius was no ordinary criminal, the world interest in his case bares testimony to that.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Pistorius will serve his sentence in the Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Facility in Pretoria

He had the best lawyers money could buy and the resources to take on the state.

Women's rights groups were shocked when the judge threw out suggestions that this was a gender crime.

For them, Ms Steenkamp had become the face of abused women around the world. In their eyes, she was in an abusive relationship with a seemingly untouchable man and had paid with her life for the love she had for him.

Much was made during the trial of Pistorius' fiery temper, his paranoia of crime and his love for guns. But in the end Judge Masipa found that this did not make Pistorius the calculating murderer the state painted him as.

The Pistorius she sentenced was a "broken man".

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Media captionOscar Pistorius case by numbers

Judge Masipa, a seasoned judge, is convinced she has served the public well in this case.

There is no jury system in South Africa and so the judge, with the help of two assessors, decides on an appropriate sentence. The ultimate power, though, lies in the hands of the judge.


Who won?

Pistorius' legal team is happy with the sentence and has no intention of appealing.

They are, however, braced for a possible appeal by prosecutor Gerrie Nel who has put up a vicious fight for Ms Steenkamp.

The Steenkamps have not commented on the sentence but her father, Barry, said they were "relieved that this is finally over, even though life will never be the same again".

So who won in court? In the simplest of terms, Pistorius.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Reeva Steenkamp and Oscar Pistorius appeared to be a perfect couple

From the moment news broke that Pistorius had fired four bullets through a toilet door to kill his model girlfriend in the early hours of Valentine's Day back in 2013, he maintained that he believed he was shooting at an intruder.

According to him it was a tragic case of mistaken identity.

He poured out his grief in court, often breaking down and even vomiting, in an attempt to disprove the prosecution's case of premeditated murder.

It was always going to be difficult for the state to prove intent.

In the end what led the previous conviction of culpable homicide to be upgraded to the more serious charge of murder was a panel of judges who found that Judge Masipa had misinterpreted the principal of dolus eventualis, which requires foresight that one's actions would lead to death.

According to them, it didn't matter whom Pistorius believed he was shooting, he had used excessive force, seemingly unprovoked, and that constituted murder.

It is important to point out that they found no reason to believe that he had killed her deliberately.

They instead looked at his knowledge of firearms and the fact that he fired at a closed toilet door, sealing the fate of whoever was behind it.


Rise and fall of Oscar Pistorius

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Media captionPistorius becomes the first amputee sprinter to compete at the Olympics
  • August 2012: Competes in London Olympics and Paralympics, where he won a gold medal
  • February 2013: Shoots dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
  • March 2014: Trial begins
  • September 2014: Judge finds Pistorius guilty of culpable homicide
  • October 2014: Begins five-year sentence
  • October 2015: Transferred to house arrest
  • December 2015: Appeal court changes verdict to murder
  • July 2016: Sentenced to six years in jail for murder