Paralympian Oscar Pistorius waits in the dock at the high court in Pretoria on Tuesday, 21 October 2014. Pistorius is to be sentenced today after being convicted of culpable homicide for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Picture: Herman Verwey/Media24/Pool

Pretoria - Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison for killing his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, after his defence team's arguments in mitigation were shattered by Judge Thokozile Masipa.

He was also sentenced to three years, suspended for five years, for firing a pistol under a table at Tasha's restaurant in Johannesburg in January 2013.

The sentences would run concurrently.

Masipa began her sentencing at the High Court in Pretoria on Tuesday morning summarising a week's worth of mitigation and aggravating arguments.

Pistorius was found guilty of last month of culpable homicide for causing the death of Reeva Steenkamp, as well as a charge of negligently handling a firearm in a separate incident.

Judge Masipa said while throughout the trial she had two assessors to assist her, but the sentencing decision was hers alone.

She said finding an appropriate sentence is a difficulty faced by criminal courts on a daily basis as there were sometimes more than a single correct sentence.

Masipa said that in mitigation of sentence, the defence called four witnesses while the State called just two for their arguments in aggravation.

She described the testimony of Pistorius's psychologist, Dr Löre Hartzenberg for the defence, who said she had been treating Pistorius since shortly after the shooting in February last year.

Hartzenberg said the court needed to take into account Pistorius's life having been left in tatters, with few friends, no career and a life now full of mental anguish.

Masipa said the next witness, Joel Maringa, a social worker, had recommended Pistorius should be kept under correctional supervision (house arrest) for three years and serve 16 hours of community service per month.

Pistorius's manager, Peet van Zyl, was the third witness, who highlighted the athlete's worldwide charity work during his illustrious career.

Van Zyl's evidence was that prior to the shooting, Pistorius was commonly perceived as a global sporting icon, who had given his time and money to various worthy causes.

According to Van Zyl, the opportunity to do this had been taken from Pistorius since Steenkamp's death.

The fourth witness was another social worker, Annette Vergeer, who spent much of her time on the stand decrying the poor status of local prisons.

She told the court that the prisons could not cater for Pistorius's special needs.

The State's first witness was Steenkamp's cousin, Kim Martin, who gave an in depth summary of the model's working and personal life.

Martin told the court of how close Steenkamp was to her parents, Barry and June, and helped them financially. Masipa noted how Martin had only met Pistorius once, a month before Steenkamp's death. Martin recalled the chaotic aftermath for her extended family when they were informed of the death.

Barry's health suffered from the stress of the death, according to Martin.

Lastly, the State brought the acting National Director at the Department of Correctional Services, Zac Modise, who insisted that the prison system could humanely detain the athlete.

Masipa then moved onto Pistorius's personal circumstances as a double amputee and world renowned paralympian.

She said he no longer had any assets, and had no previous convictions.

Masipa said she was not impressed by Vergeer as a witness, as her evidence was poor and used outdated information, especially concerning the prison system. She said this had a negative impact on Vergeer's credibility, and said the State was right in describing her evidence as “sketchy” and biased for someone with 28 years of experience.

Modise impressed the Judge, however, as a witness who genuinely wanted to inform the court that while local prisons weren't perfect, they could cater for special needs. She said she was satisfied that disabled prisoners would be correctly looked after.

She added that if Pistorius has any issues with his accommodation if sent to prison, he had every right to approach the courts.

Judge Masipa recalled how the defence had argued Pistorius would also need mental rehabilitation for his numerous anxieties, but she believed Modise had established that such care would be available, and the athlete could bring in his own doctors.

She said that pregnant women, one of the most vulnerable groups in society, have been incarcerated in the past, with the department able to care for them.

She said it would be a major concern if there was a perception of one law for the poor, and another for the rich and famous.

Masipa also believed that the defence had placed too much emphasis on his vulnerability, when he had been living his life as a confident athlete who competed with the able-bodied.

She said her judgment was designed to bring forth the real picture of who Pistorius was.

Masipa said Pistorius had helped changed the public's perceptions of the disabled, and inspired other young people. She said this can't be ignored but had to be put in perspective, as his manager told the court it would have been a poor career move not to get involved with charities.

Masipa did believe, however, that Pistorius was remorseful for his crimes, as evidenced by his attempts to privately apologise to the Steenkamp family.

She said the defence had argued Pistorius's poor mental state had been exacerbated by the media reports surrounding him. Masipa said she had taken note that the sheer number and availability of these reports could indeed be a factor in mitigation.

The judge said that while the interests of society are a necessary concern in providing a sentence, the court should not be part of a societal popularity contest, and rather pursue justice to its fullest extent.

“Retribution... is not the same as vengeance,” she said.

She said, however, that while the population could consider a lenient sentence as a failure of the court, the threat of mob justice should not deter from a righteous sentence.

Masipa said she hoped that her ruling would provide closure for all concerned, “so they could move on with their lives”.

In a comparison with another case similar to that of Pistorius's, Masipa said the athlete had not been trying to scare off an intruder, but rather trying to shoot him.

In her conclusion, Masipa said the sentence of correctional supervision as recommended by the defence witnesses was “not appropriate” for this matter because of the severe negligent behaviour of the athlete.

She said a non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to society, but that a long sentence was not appropriate either.

In respect of the second shooting incident at a Tasha's restaurant, she said a sentence of direct imprisonment was not appropriate as no one was hurt.

After telling the athlete to rise, Masipa sentenced Pistorius to five years in prison for cupable homicide and three years imprisonment for the second charge, but wholly suspended. The two sentences were set to run concurrently.

Pistorius managed to hold hands with some of his family members before he was led down towards the cells.

After giving out her verdict, the judge thanked the counsel on both sides for their help during the trial and the public gallery for their behaviour. Masipa said: “I want to thank the gallery. It was not an easy matter.”

After the sentence was handed down, National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Nathi Mncube said the organisation was originally disappointed with the culpable homicide conviction, but had taken solace in the fact that Pistorius would see some time behind bars.

He said a non-custodial sentence would have been inappropriate, and that the NPA will consider whether they may appeal the sentencing.

Mncube said it would be a difficult decision as the case was far from "straightforward".

Meanwhile, he said he believed Pistorius would be taken straight to prison from the courthouse.

 

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