from Africa in Transition

South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius Sentenced to Six Years Imprisonment

July 14, 2016

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The tragedy-as-soap-opera starring Paralympian Oscar Pistorius is over. Or, maybe not. Pistorius, a Paralympian gold medalist who also competed in non-disabled events, was a major media celebrity and hero in sports mad South Africa. In 2013, he killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, by shooting her through a closed bathroom door. He maintains that he thought she was an intruder.

In 2014, in a trial before Thokozile Masipa, a female, black judge, he was found guilty of “culpable homicide” (roughly the equivalent of manslaughter) and sentenced to five years imprisonment. South Africa does not have the jury system.

In South Africa, both the defense and the prosecution have the right to appeal to a higher court. The prosecution did so. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Appeals overturned the verdict of culpable homicide and found him guilty of murder. It then sent him back to Judge Masipa for resentencing. On July 6, 2016, she sentenced him to six years imprisonment, one year more than her sentence for culpable homicide. In her public statement, the judge carefully balanced the aggravating and mitigating factors. Her bottom line: there was no purpose to imposing the usual fifteen-year sentence for murder. (South African judges have discretion in sentencing.) Many South Africans, especially those active on women’s issues, found the judge’s arguments unconvincing.

In its aftermath, there has been popular outcry that the sentence reflects the enduring privileges of race and celebrity. (Pistorius is  famous, white, and was once wealthy.) The Pistorius case has for many become emblematic of South Africa’s persistent problems: violence against women, the ubiquitous presence of firearms, the frequency of home invasions, and persistent white privilege. As Greg Nicolson, writes in the Daily Maverick, “Much of the response to Wednesday’s sentencing reflected on the socio-economics of race and class: Pistorius is white and can afford a top legal team, so he was viewed favorably and given a lenient sentence, when black, and particularly poor, people would be judged harshly.” The same observation could too often be made about the operation of the criminal justice system in the United States.

The new, six-year sentence may be appealed by the defense and the prosecution. Pistorius’ lawyers have said they will not appeal. It is not yet clear what the prosecution might do, especially given the outcry against the leniency of the sentence. However, if the sentence stands, in eighteen months Pistorius could be given credit for the time he has already served under “correctional supervision” and would be eligible for parole in three years.

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