South African Paralympian star sprinter Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday for the killing of his girlfriend last year, as his sensational trial reached a climax.
Pistorius, who had vomited and wept at times during the trial, stood stock-still in the dock as he was sentenced, veins bulging in his forehead and his jaw muscles clenched.
“Count one, culpable homicide: the sentence imposed is five years,” judge Thokozile Masipa said.
Pistorius, 27, was also given a three-year suspended sentence on a separate gun offence conviction.
Masipa said she wanted to find a balance between retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation, dismissing defence 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 his ability 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 responsible 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.
– ‘More equal than others’ –
The double amputee sprinter was acquitted of the more serious charge of murder over Reeva Steenkamp’s death on Valentine’s Day last year.
The prosecution has called for 10 years in jail. The defence pleaded for house arrest and community service.
Pistorius testified that he shot Steenkamp, a 29-year-old law graduate and model, four times through a locked bathroom door at his upmarket Pretoria home after he mistakenly believed she was an intruder.
His lawyers, arguing that Pistorius would be more vulnerable than most in prison because of his disability, had argued against jail time, and called instead for the equivalent of house arrest and community service.
Prosecutor Gerrie Nel said such a sentence would be “shockingly inappropriate” and could cause South Africans to lose faith in their legal system.
The trial has drawn international attention and media gathered outside the courthouse shortly after dawn to get into position for the star runner’s entrance and the arrival of friends and families on both sides of the case who have attended the long trial.
A man dressed in prison orange draped himself in chains, holding a sign saying: “Are certain offenders more equal than other offenders before the law?”
Before the sentence was pronounced, legal experts had been divided on which way judge Masipa would swing.
“There is a strong argument to be made for certainly a period of direct imprisonment,” said William Booth, a criminal lawyer based in Cape Town. “You do have to send a message to the public.”
The athlete made history by becoming the first Paralympian to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, inspiring millions with his story.
But during his trial the prosecution painted a darker picture of the one-time sports star, presenting a dangerously volatile young man with a penchant for guns, beautiful women and fast cars.
With the conviction and sentence, Pistorius has lost his glittering sports career, lucrative contracts and — above all — his hero status, tarnished forever.