PRETORIA (Reuters) - Disgraced South African track star Oscar Pistorius arrived at the Pretoria High Court on Monday for a sentencing hearing that will determine whether he serves jail time for the negligent killing of his girlfriend, or walks out a free man.
A stony-faced Pistorius stared straight ahead as police officers escorted him into the court building. He declined to answer questions from the scrum of reporters but greeted his family inside the court with smiles and hugs.
After a six-month, on-off trial that captivated South Africa and millions more around the world who admired Pistorius as a symbol of triumph over physical adversity, opinion is starkly divided on the eventual outcome.
A non-custodial sentence would be likely to spark public anger, fuelling a perception among black South Africans that, 20 years after the end of apartheid, wealthy whites can still secure preferential justice.
“At the end of the day a young lady was killed and someone should pay for it,” said 57-year-old Mildred Lekalakala, a member of the Women’s League of the ruling African National Congress.
The 27-year-old Paralympic and Olympic athlete, whose lower legs were amputated as a baby, was convicted of culpable homicide last month for the Valentine’s Day shooting of 29-year-old law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp.
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 hiding behind it.
A murder conviction would have almost certainly carried a jail sentence. 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.
In a front page headline on Friday, South Africa’s Times newspaper cited experts saying: ‘Oscar won’t go to jail’. Conversely, Johannesburg’s Star said he was likely to get as many as 10 years behind bars, with a portion suspended.
At the sentencing hearing, Masipa is expected to hear arguments from prosecution and defense, possibly for as long as a day each, and psychological and probation experts before making her ruling.
The decision by 66-year-old Masipa, only the second black woman to rise to South Africa’s bench, to absolve Pistorius of murder drew criticism from many legal experts and the public in a country infamous for violence, particularly against women.
The professional criticism centered on the legal notion of intent via ‘dolus eventualis’, whereby a person is held responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions. Laymen have pondered the practical consequences of the ruling, in particular what it meant for the legal principle of self-defense.
Pistorius said the shooting in his upmarket Pretoria home was a tragic mistake, but at the trial prosecutors presented a written firearms license test in which he acknowledged that using lethal force against an intruder was only allowed if there was a direct threat to a person’s life.
With this in mind, as well as the questions over Masipa’s ruling on intent, the state could yet decide to appeal the culpable verdict in pursuit of a murder conviction.
“We have many judgments which essentially say: ‘If you point a firearm at someone and shoot, then you intend to kill them’,” said Steve Tucson, a law professor at Johannesburg’s Wit waters rand University.
Under South African law, an appeal cannot be launched until sentencing has been concluded.
(This story was refiled to fix typo in paragraph 12)
Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Joe Brock