PRETORIA (Reuters) - South African athlete Oscar Pistorius would be “broken as a person” if he were jailed for killing his girlfriend because of his disability and psychological problems, a defense witness at his sentencing hearing said on Tuesday.
The 27-year-old Paralympic and Olympic athlete, whose lower legs were amputated as a baby, was convicted of culpable homicide last month for shooting dead his girlfriend, law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp, 29, on Valentine’s Day 2013.
Probation officer Annette Vergeer, who was paid by the defense to produce her report, said South African prisons were not conducive to the disabled and Pistorius would be vulnerable to violence and highly stressful situations.
“It will not assist him but break him as a person. The death of the deceased and the period since have been a far bigger punishment than incarceration,” Vergeer told the court.
“His disability and state of mind would cause his detention to be an excessive punishment with no benefits to him, society and the deceased’s family,” she said.
Pistorius, dressed in a dark suit and tie, sat impassively in the packed courtroom as one of the most closely watched murder trials in history edged towards its conclusion.
The athlete has broken down in tears and retched into a bucket during the on-off, six-month trial. His psychologist told the court on Monday he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and sometimes spent sessions weeping.
On the first day of the hearing on Monday, a social worker recommended Pistorius be sentenced to partial house arrest and community service, which state prosecutor Gerrie Nel described as “shockingly inappropriate”.
Nel will call at least two witnesses as the state pushes for a lengthy prison term. Sentencing is expected to conclude by the end of the week.
Culpable homicide, South Africa’s equivalent of manslaughter, can be punished by anything from 15 years in jail to a suspended sentence or community service.
A non-custodial sentence would be likely to cause public anger, fuelling a perception among black South Africans that, 20 years after the end of apartheid, wealthy whites can still secure preferential justice.
Judge Thokozile Masipa cleared Pistorius of murder, saying prosecutors had failed to prove his intent to kill when he fired four 9mm rounds through a toilet door in what he said was the mistaken belief that an intruder was hiding behind it.
Pistorius, known as the ‘Blade Runner’ because of the carbon-fiber prosthetics he uses on track, said the shooting in his upmarket Pretoria home was a tragic mistake as he thought Steenkamp was asleep in bed, not in the small toilet cubicle.
The decision by 66-year-old Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to South Africa’s bench, to clear Pistorius of murder drew criticism from many legal experts and the public in a country infamous for violence, particularly against women.
The state could decide to appeal the culpable homicide verdict in pursuit of a murder conviction. An appeal cannot be launched until sentencing has been concluded.
(The story was refiled to fix the spelling of retched in paragraph 7)
Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Janet Lawrence