Therapist says Pistorius inconsolable after shooting as hearing starts

South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius looks down while his phycologist gives evidences during his sentencing hearing at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa on Oct 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius looks down while his phycologist gives evidences during his sentencing hearing at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa on Oct 13, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

PRETORIA (AFP) - Oscar Pistorius's therapist told a sentencing hearing the fallen sprinter suffered genuine remorse following his girlfriend's death, as his defence team argued he should not be imprisoned for negligently killing the model.

Lore Hartzenberg told a South African court that Pistorius was virtually inconsolable during initial counselling sessions after he shot Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day 2013.

"Some of the sessions were just him weeping and crying and me holding him," said Hartzenberg, the first witness called by Pistorius lawyers to mitigate against a prison sentence.

"I can confirm his remorse and pain to be genuine," said Hartzenberg "I have never found him to be anything other than a respectful, caring and well-mannered person."

Prosecutor Gerrie Nel suggested Hartzenberg was biased in favour of Pistorius, pointing out that she once cried during the trial.  

“I cried in court, I was emotional once when he was required to take off his prosthesis,” she admitted. 

The double-amputee track star was found guilty in September of culpable homicide, but cleared of premeditated murder in killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a verdict that shocked the country and fuelled criticism of South Africa's legal system.

The 27-year-old entered the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria amid tight security for the start of the sentencing hearing, which is expected to run for most of the week.

The "Blade Runner" could face up to 15 years in one of South Africa's notoriously brutal prisons or could dodge a jail term altogether with a non-custodial sentence, given that he was found not guilty on the most serious charge.

The defence team is expected to argue that the country's prisons are not suited for his disability and that the 2012 London Paralympics silver medallist deserves leniency as a first time offender.

Hartzenberg did not testify during the trial.

"My attitude from the outset was that I was Mr Pistorius's therapist, and that I was not going to become involved in the merits of the case," she said.

During her cross-examination, the court heard that Steenkamp's father had suffered a stroke after her death and her mother has repeatedly collapsed in tears, their lives shattered by the tragedy.

Lawyer David Dadic - who is not involved in the case - said the defence will "heavily expand on their trial argument regarding Oscar's remorsefulness".

"The biggest factor, however, which the defence will raise is, of course, the fact that Oscar is a first time offender," he added.

In turn, the state will call witnesses to testify on why he should serve the stiffest penalty, raising the issue of his history of negligence with firearms.

After the sentence is handed down, both the state and defence can appeal, a legal process likely to drag out for years.

In September, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled the athlete did not knowingly shoot to kill the 29-year-old model and law graduate.

The sprinter admitted he fired four hollow point bullets through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home in the early hours of Valentine's Day, but said he believed he had been shooting at a burglar.

Masipa's ruling outraged many South Africans, including lawyers who believed she misinterpreted the definition of murder, and questioned whether the justice system is failing the crime-plagued country.

Pistorius is currently out on bail of one million rand (S$115,000). He had to sell his posh house inside a gated compound in Pretoria, the scene of the crime, to fund the cost of the trial, and has withdrawn from competitive sport since his arrest.