Pretoria — South African star athlete Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison on Tuesday for killing his girlfriend, in the climax to his sensational trial watched around the world.
The Paralympian sprinter, known as the “Blade Runner”, was led from the dock down to the cells to start his sentence for shooting model Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013.
“Count one, culpable homicide: the sentence imposed is five years,” Judge Thokozile Masipa told Pistorius in the Pretoria courtroom.
It was a stunning fall from grace for the 27-year-old who made history by becoming the first double amputee Paralympian to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, inspiring millions.
But during his trial, the prosecution painted a darker picture of the sports star, presenting a dangerously volatile young man with a penchant for guns, beautiful women and fast cars.
Lawyers said however that Pistorius will probably not serve the full term for the offense of culpable homicide, equivalent to manslaughter, and perhaps as little as 10 months.
Pistorius, who had wept and vomited at times during his trial, stood stock-still as he was sentenced, veins bulging in his forehead and his jaw muscles clenched.
He was also sentenced to three years, suspended for five years, for accidentally firing a pistol under a table at a restaurant in Johannesburg in January 2013.
Pistorius had testified that he shot Steenkamp, 29, four times through a locked bathroom door at his upmarket Pretoria home after he mistakenly believed she was an intruder.
Prosecutors had argued that he murdered her in a fit of rage after an argument.
– Verdict hotly debated –
As the court adjourned, Pistorius turned to look at the public gallery, then briefly took the hands of his family members before being led by police to the cells.
Amid a media frenzy, he was later taken to a police van which was escorted to Pretoria’s Kgosi Mampuru prison.
“He is already accommodated at Kgosi Mmapuru, in Pretoria,” said correctional services spokesman Manelisi Wolela.
Steenkamp’s family welcomed the sentence, the dramatic end to a trial televised globally that began in March but was repeatedly adjourned.
Steenkamp’s ailing father Barry said he was “very glad” the trial was over and a lawyer for the family said the sentence was “welcome”.
Oscar Pistorius’s uncle said the sprinter’s family accepted the court’s judgement.
“Oscar will embrace this opportunity to pay back to society,” Arnold Pistorius said.
The verdict and the sentence have been hotly debated in South Africa, with many expressing the opinion that Pistorius literally got away with murder.
The Steenkamps’ lawyer Dup de Bruyn told AFP that the sentence will likely be served as two years in prison and three years under house arrest.
A member of Pistorius’s legal team, Roxanne Adams, said he would likely serve a sixth of the five-year term — 10 months — before being transferred to house arrest.
– No decision on appeals –
Neither side indicated immediately whether they would appeal against either the September verdict or Tuesday’s sentence.
State prosecution spokesman Nathi Mncube said they had been disappointed with the conviction for culpable homicide rather than murder.
But he added: “We have not made up our minds whether we are going to appeal or not.”
Adams said the defense had “no comment” on whether it will appeal.
The International Paralympic Committee said Pistorius — who won sprint gold medals at three Games — would not be allowed to compete in the next event in 2016 even if he was released early.
Masipa said she wanted to find a balance between retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation, dismissing defense claims that the disabled athlete would face particular suffering in prison.
“It would be a sad day for this country if an impression were to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous,” said Masipa.
She also weighed the ability of Pistorius to cope with incarceration given his physical disability.
“Yes the accused is vulnerable, but he also has excellent coping skills,” she said.
Discussing the gravity of Pistorius’s crime, the judge said he had been guilty of “gross negligence”.
“Using a lethal weapon, a loaded firearm, the accused fired not one, but four shots into the door,” said Masipa.
“The toilet was a small cubicle and there was no room for escape for the person behind the door,” she said.
The prosecution had called for 10 years in jail for the athlete, while the defense pleaded for house arrest and community service.
But Masipa said a community service order “would not be appropriate”.
With the conviction and sentence, Pistorius has lost his glittering sports career, lucrative contracts and — above all — his hero status, tarnished forever.
AFP Photo/Kim Ludbrook
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