PRETORIA (Reuters) - A judge will pass sentence on athlete Oscar Pistorius on Tuesday for killing his girlfriend after one of the most sensational murder trials in South Africa’s history - and the decision could fuel controversy over the state of the country’s justice system.
The Olympic and Paralympic runner was convicted of culpable homicide last month for shooting dead 29-year-old law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp at his home in Pretoria in February 2013.
Judge Thokozile Masipa cleared Pistorius of the more serious charge of murder, saying prosecutors had failed to prove his intent to kill when he fired four 9mm rounds through the door of a toilet cubicle in what he said was the mistaken belief an intruder was lurking behind it.
State prosecutor Gerrie Nel said at the sentencing hearing last week that only 10 years imprisonment would satisfy the South African public. They would lose their faith in the justice system if Pistorius avoids jail, Nel said.
Defense lawyer Barry Roux said, however, that the double-amputee sprinter should be given community service because his sorrow and regret at being killing the woman he loved was the worst punishment of all.
He also said Pistorius, whose lower legs were amputated as a baby, would face particular difficulties in prison.
The 27-year-old sprinter, known as ‘Blade Runner’ because of the carbon-fiber prosthetics he made famous at the London 2012 Olympics, could also be given a suspended sentence or house arrest.
If Pistorius avoids a custodial sentence, the decision could inflame public anger and fuel a perception among black South Africans that, 20 years after the end of apartheid, wealthy whites can still secure preferential justice.
Indicating the public mood, a cartoon by popular satirist Zapiro in the Sunday Times mocked a potential sentence of house arrest. It depicted Pistorius popping champagne with friends in a sports car, while an ankle tag bleeped on a pair of prosthetics left inside his house.
Opinion among legal experts is divided on the outcome.
“I personally believe, given the severity of the crime and the high degree of negligence, there will be quite a long period of direct imprisonment,” said Mannie Witz, a Johannesburg-based advocate.
“Some lawyers are speculating that it could be community supervision (house arrest), which means you can leave for work and church services, as long as you are inside from 6pm-6am. This can be up to a maximum of 5 years.”
The six-month trial captivated South Africans and many people around the world who admired Pistorius as a symbol of triumph over physical adversity. With its glamorous victim, tears and tragedy, and Pistorius’ fall from grace, it has been endlessly discussed.
It also highlighted the country’s endemic violence - in domestic situations in which women suffer abuse from their partners, and also in its high crime rate. The claim that Pistorius feared his home had been invaded struck a chord with some South Africans.
Pistorius’ sister Aimee said on Monday the shooting and trial had been damaging for everyone.
“The guilt and ridicule that surrounds it as well as the exposure...and just the heartache for both my brother, my family and of course the Steenkamp family,” she told South Africa’s ENCA television.
Reporting by Joe Brock; Editing by Angus MacSwan