Sentencing of Pistorius to begin on Monday; he may face 15 years in jail or dodge jail term

South African Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius (centre) leaves the High Court in Pretoria on Sept 12, 2014 after the verdict in his murder trial where he was found guilty of culpable homicide. -- PHOTO: AFP
South African Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius (centre) leaves the High Court in Pretoria on Sept 12, 2014 after the verdict in his murder trial where he was found guilty of culpable homicide. -- PHOTO: AFP

PRETORIA (AFP) - Oscar Pistorius appears in court on Monday to face sentencing for shooting dead his model girlfriend, after his controversial conviction for culpable homicide - not murder - fuelled criticism of South Africa's legal system.

The "Blade Runner" faces 15 years in one of South Africa's notoriously brutal prisons or could dodge a jail term altogether with a non-custodial sentence after being found not guilty of premeditated murder.

In September, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled the 27-year-old did not knowingly shoot to kill 29-year-old model and law graduate Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day 2013. This despite the sprinter admitting he fired four hollow point bullets through a locked toilet door in his upmarket Pretoria home.

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

The ruling came as another judge overturned the murder convictions of another South African celebrity, hip-hop artist Molemo "Jub Jub" Maarohanye who killed four school children with his Mini Cooper and leaving two others with brain damage.

His conviction was reduced to culpable homicide on appeal and his has been reduced from 25 years in jail to eight.

"The sense is we're just too soft on crime," said Martin Hood, a criminal lawyer based in Johannesburg. "We keep seeing that over and over again, we have magistrates and judges who have the discretion to impose harsh sentences and they simply don't do it," said Hood.

"They are massively influenced by the costs of holding a prisoner and by the overcrowding of people in prisons."

Critics also point to the release on parole of Jackie Selebi, the country's former head of police and Interpol president convicted of corruption and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 2010. Today Selebi is free on medical parole and is sometimes spotted shopping in Pretoria, driving a BMW.

"Fundamentally we don't have a culture of punishment and responsibility in this country," said Hood. "I think that's very much a reason why we have a problem with serious and violent crime." Around 47 people are murdered every day in South Africa, rape and carjacking are common.

- The sentencing -

Judge Masipa will begin proceedings next week by hearing defence witnesses who will testify on why Pistorius should not serve time behind bars. She will then turn to the state, who will call witnesses to testify on why he should serve the stiffest penalty. A conviction of culpable homicide does not have a prescribed sentence as the penalty is at the judge's discretion.

The double-amputee could be given 15 years behind bars, or a suspended sentence, or a non-custodial sentence served under house arrest. Masipa will likely adjourn court to consider the evidence before setting another date to hand down the sentence.

However, that will probably not mark the end of the case. After the sentence is handed down, both the state and defence can appeal.

"The state can only appeal on grounds of law," said Ulrich Roux, a Johannesburg-based criminal lawyer. "In this instance, that the murder principal has been applied incorrectly by the judge."

The defence can appeal the conviction of culpable homicide or the sentence - or both - said Roux.

"They can say the judge made an error in considering the facts or interpreting the law," he said.

In any case, Pistorius is not likely to return to his glittering sporting career. Once revered, Pistorius has been stripped of lucrative endorsement deals by global brands and has withdrawn from all competition.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.