South African sports icon Oscar Pistorius was handed a five year sentence for fatally shooting his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Tuesday.
Speaking to a packed courtroom in Pretoria, judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa said the athlete’s success on the track against able-bodied competitors proved he would be able to cope with the rigors of South Africa’s prison system.
“It would be a sad day in this country if an impression was created that there is one law for the poor, and one for the rich and famous,” she said.
Despite her stern words, it is likely that Pistorius will serve no more than two years in prison before he is allowed to complete the sentence under house arrest.
After an arduous seven-month trial, Masipa convicted Pistorius of culpable homicide and one count of contravening the Firearms Control Act last month. She said on Tuesday that the two offenses were “both very serious”, and noted that Pistorius had displayed “gross negligence that bordered on dolus eventualis.” In other words, she thought he was almost guilty of one of the lesser murder charges, of which he was controversially acquitted last month.
Masipa told the court she had considered the nature of the crime and the interests of society in settling on a five-year sentence, but said she had ignored attacks on Pistorius’s character both in the media and the public discourse.
“I am duty-bound to take into consideration the main purposes of punishment, retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation. All of these must be accorded due weight in any sentence,” she said, adding that the court was obligated “to differentiate between the public interest and what society wants.”
“This is not a popularity contest, it is about dispensing justice.”
Masipa rebuffed the defense team’s argument that South African prisons were ill-equipped to care for Pistorius’s physical and now mental impediments (Pistorius has allegedly been grappling with depression and post-traumatic stress as a result of the ordeal). A prison official argued in court that the Kgosi Mampuru II prison facility where Pistorius is expected to serve his sentence would be able to accommodate his health requirements.
She also reminded the court that Pistorius had built a reputation on not having to rely on special treatment on the sports track and had thus successfully proven that he was capable of coping under similar circumstances in jail.
“There was a feeling of unease on my part as I listened to witnesses who overemphasized the accused’s vulnerability,” she said. “ Yes, he is vulnerable, but he has excellent coping skills, thanks to his mother he rarely saw himself as disabled, and excelled as a top athlete, even going on to compete against able-bodied persons.”
Masipa justified her final decision on the basis that a “non-custodial sentence would send a wrong message to the community” but that a lengthy sentence would lack mercy. “There is a distinct difference between punishment and revenge and this is something South Africans need to know, as it is crucial when exercising sentencing,” she said. “As a country we have long moved from the dark ages that is the era of ‘an eye for an eye’ to a modern era of balancing all the relevant factors. Retribution is not the same as vengeance.”
On the charge of recklessly handling a firearm in an incident at Tasha’s restaurant in Johannesburg in January 2013, Masipa handed down a three-year sentence suspended for five years. The two sentences will run concurrently.
The exact duration and conditions under which Pistorius will spend his incarceration has already become a matter of fierce contention. South Africa legal experts and local journalists have cautioned that it is highly likely that Pistorius will not spend the whole five years behind bars. The BBC’s Andrew Harding tweeted a reminder that a five year sentence “means [Pistorius] could be free after not much more than 2 years”, and there are already suggestions that Pistorius could spend only a sixth of his sentence (10 months) under custody before moving to house arrest.
Nathi Mncube, a spokesperson for the South African National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), disputed this claim, stating that Pistorius would be obligated to spend a third of the jail time (roughly 20 months) in prison, although he added that this was “ not for the NPA to decide.”
While the Steenkamp family have not yet released a formal statement, Reeva’s father Barry Steenkamp told court reporters that they were ‘satisfied’ with the outcome.
Pistorius was later taken down to holding cells and left the court in a prison van at approximately 11:00am SAST. So far there has been no indication that appeals have been discussed or filed. A statement made by the Pistorius family following the trial suggested that the defense would not appealing the sentence.