What has been called “South Africa’s O.J. Simpson trial” has likely come to an end.
Oscar “Blade Runner” Pistorius – the double-amputee competitive runner who made national headlines by participating in the 2012 Olympic Games – was sentenced yesterday to six years in prison for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at their home in 2013.
The six-year sentence raised eyebrows in South Africa and around the world, as a murder conviction normally carries a 15-year minimum sentence. But Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa of the High Court in Pretoria cited “mitigating circumstances” in her decision to cut the standard punishment by more than 50 percent.
One of those mitigating circumstances – and the fact around which the entire case revolves – is Pistorius’s claim that he believed his girlfriend was an intruder before he shot her.
Pistorius held throughout the trial that on the night of February 14, 2013, he believed an intruder had climbed into his bathroom through the window. When he heard a noise coming from the bathroom, he grabbed his gun and shot through the closed door four times. Only later did he realize that the person behind the locked door was his girlfriend, Steenkamp.
The prosecution argued that Pistorius knew Steenkamp was in the locked bathroom, and he killed her in the wake of an argument between the couple.
Pistorius was originally convicted in 2014 of culpable homicide – South Africa’s equivalent to manslaughter – and was sentenced to five years. Pistorius served the first year before being released to serve the rest of his term under house arrest.
But prosecutors appealed the ruling to a higher court, citing a legal principle known as dolus eventualis, which, when applied to Pistorius’s case, holds the athlete guilty of murder because he should have known that firing through the locked door would kill whoever was inside.
The higher courts agreed. In his opinion, Judge Eric Leach said that “the identity of [Pistorius’s] victim is irrelevant to his guilt” because “the accused must have foreseen, and therefore did foresee, that whoever was behind the toilet door might die, but reconciled himself to that event occurring and gambled with that person’s life.”
Despite the higher court’s ruling, Judge Masipa’s comments during the sentencing were largely sympathetic to the former Olympian. “He’s a fallen hero who has lost his career and is ruined financially,” she said. “The worst is that having taken the life of a fellow human being in the manner that he did, he cannot be at peace.”
The judge also noted that Pistorius had tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to apologize to Steenkamp’s parents, he was a first-time offender, and he seemed genuinely remorseful and willing to reform. “I am of the view that a long-term imprisonment will not serve justice,” she said.