Friday 20 September 2019

Judge 'overemphasised' Oscar Pistorius's disability and was too lenient when sentencing him, appeal told

Oscar Pistorius: got six years in jail for murdering girlfriend. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images
Oscar Pistorius: got six years in jail for murdering girlfriend. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

Gerald Imray

A judge "overemphasised" Oscar Pistorius's disability and was far too lenient on him, prosecutors said as they tried to convince a South African court to more than double his prison sentence for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

"Murder is murder," chief prosecutor Andrea Johnson told a five-judge panel at the Supreme Court of Appeal.

She asked the judges to overturn the double-amputee athlete's initial six-year sentence and give him the prescribed minimum of 15 years. There is no death penalty in South Africa.

If the court agrees, Pistorius, 30, could remain in prison until after he is 40.

The judges did not deliver a decision on Friday. Typically, Supreme Court judges take a couple of weeks before the senior judge returns to read out the decision, which is made through a simple majority.

Nearly five years after the once-admired Olympic runner first appeared in court for shooting Ms Steenkamp multiple times through a closed toilet door at his home, his fate is still not certain.

He was not at Friday's hearing as he serves his sentence at a prison near the capital, Pretoria. He has served more than a year of his six-year term.

Ms Steenkamp's mother, June Steenkamp, did attend. Speaking outside the courthouse, her lawyer said the family supported prosecutors' attempt to get a longer sentence.

Reeva Steenkamp Photo: AP Photo/Courtesy of Stimulii
Reeva Steenkamp Photo: AP Photo/Courtesy of Stimulii

Prosecutors had two arguments to make to the court. First, they needed to apply for permission to appeal against Pistorius's sentence. They were asked by the judges to also present their arguments for why, if their appeal is allowed, his sentence should be increased.

Read More: Oscar Pistorius murder sentence: South Africa's Supreme Court to hear state's appeal against six-year term

This is the second time prosecutors have gone to the Supreme Court in the central city of Bloemfontein to challenge a decision by Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over Pistorius's trial.

In 2015, prosecutors successfully appealed against Judge Masipa's ruling that Pistorius was not guilty of murder. The court overturned the verdict of culpable homicide - or manslaughter - and convicted him of murder.

Judge Masipa then sentenced Pistorius to six years in prison for murder, a term just one year longer than her original sentence for manslaughter. Prosecutors called that sentence "shockingly" light.

Judges can deviate from prescribed minimum sentences if there are compelling circumstances. The prosecution says there were no compelling reasons.

"What we are saying is the court exercised its discretion inappropriately," prosecutor Johnson said, calling the six-year sentence "unjust".

She said Pistorius had still not shown "genuine remorse" for killing Ms Steenkamp and that Judge Masipa put the athlete's personal circumstances and his disability ahead of the need for "retribution" when she sentenced him.

June and Barry Steenkamp, parents of Reeva Photo: Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images
June and Barry Steenkamp, parents of Reeva Photo: Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

Read More: Oscar Pistorius taken to hospital 'with chest pains'

Pistorius claimed he mistook Ms Steenkamp for a dangerous intruder hiding in his bathroom in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine's Day 2013 when, without his prosthetic legs on and standing on his stumps, he shot four times through the cubicle door.

Judge Masipa's initial sentence was appropriate in the circumstances, Pistorius's defence lawyers said, and his disability was not exaggerated. He had both his legs amputated below the knee when he was a baby because of a congenital condition.

"Of course his disability is mentioned, but it can't not be mentioned," defence lawyer Kelly Phelps said. "It is one of the factors of this case. We can't magic away his disability."

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