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Oscar Pistorius could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison on Oct 13, legal expert says

posted 12 Oct 2014, 08:46 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 12 Oct 2014, 08:47 ]

Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius is to appear in court in Pretoria on October 13 for a much anticipated sentence for culpable homicide -- which could carry up to 15 years in prison, says a legal expert.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA  (REUTERS) - Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius is set to appear at the Pretoria High Court on Monday (October 13) to hear a sentence for culpable homicide after escaping the more serious charge of murder for the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

The 27-year-old double amputee, who became one of the biggest names in world athletics, stood impassively in the dock, his hands folded in front of him, as Judge Thokozile Masipa delivered her verdict last month.

Pistorius was also convicted of firing a pistol under the table of a packed Johannesburg restaurant but cleared of two other firearms charges - illegal possession of ammunition and firing a pistol out of the sun-roof of a car.

Masipa based her decision of culpable homicide on the reasoning that Pistorius had acted negligently when he fired four shots from a 9mm pistol into a toilet door in his luxury Pretoria home, killing Steenkamp, who was behind it, almost instantly.

He said it was a tragic error, and that he had believed he was shooting at an intruder.

Culpable homicide - South Africa's equivalent of manslaughter - carries up to 15 years in prison but, given Pistorius' lack of previous convictions, legal experts said he could avoid a custodial sentence altogether.

According to legal practitioner Mariette Smith, a prison term would be the most severe and for many South Africans, the most anticipated after what they say is a somewhat anti-climatic judgement.

"Since he has been convicted of culpable homicide, the court has various sentence options. The harshest of that is incarceration, meaning a prison term that can depend on any period, there's no minimum or no maximum except it cannot exceed 15 years," Smith said.

Masipa's decision sparked anger outside the court, particularly among groups campaigning for women's rights in a country with high levels of violent crime against women and children.

The verdict has also forced democratic South Africa to ask itself some uncomfortable questions about race and inequality, in a country where whites and blacks still inhabit largely different worlds, two decades after the end of apartheid.

One aspect of the ruling has also sparked legal controversy, turning ordinary South Africans into overnight armchair experts on the vexed issue of 'dolus eventualis', a concept of intent that holds a person responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their actions.

While Masipa ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove explicit premeditation to kill Steenkamp - a decision that had been anticipated by many legal experts - she also cleared Pistorius of the lesser charge of murder in the heat of the moment.

She justified the verdict by saying it had not been proven that Pistorius had intended to kill the person behind the door, let alone Steenkamp.

"What will count in his favour is the fact that this act was committed due to negligence. Similar to a vehicle accident due to human error a death occurs. Now the question has to be asked, does this person have to be removed from society? Is he a threat to society, can he still function within a normal society without further repercussions?" Smith said.

Smith said Pistorius also had elements in his favour which could lessen the severity of the sentence.

"Mitigating factors as we have heard in the trial, of course, is the fact he is a paraplegic. Secondly, he is a first offender. He is being convicted of two charges, one being the culpable homicide and secondly the offence of discharging the firearm in a municipal area. Both of those sentences do not automatically carry a prison term," she said.

Before the shooting, Pistorius was a symbol of triumph over adversity, recovering from having both his legs amputated as a baby to win six gold medals at three Paralympics running on carbon-fibre prosthetics, earning the nickname 'Blade Runner'.