November 24, 2017 / 8:04 AM / 22 days ago

South African appeals court more than doubles Pistorius sentence

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s Supreme Court more than doubled Oscar Pistorius’ murder sentence on Friday, accepting prosecutors’ argument that the original jail term of six years for shooting dead his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was “shockingly lenient”.

The gold medal-winning athlete, a double amputee known as the “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fibre prosthetics, was not in court to hear the new sentence of 13 years and five months handed down.

Steenkamp’s family were also absent but welcomed the revised term -- the minimum 15 years prescribed for murder, minus the time Pistorius has already served -- and said it showed justice could prevail in South Africa.

“This is an emotional thing for them. They just feel that their trust in the justice system has been confirmed this morning,” Tania Koen, a family spokeswoman, told Reuters.

Rights groups in a country beset by high levels of violent crime against women say Pistorius, 31, received preferential treatment compared to non-whites and those without his wealth or celebrity status.

Barry Steenkamp, the father of the slain model, told SABC television the family could now get on with their lives.

“I always, from the beginning, said justice had not been served, now it has,” he said.

In the same interview, her mother June Steenkamp said: We felt that we didn’t have justice for Reeva by that too-lenient sentence but now we have justice for her.”

Pistorius’ elder brother Carl wrote on Twitter: “Shattered. Heartbroken. Gutted.” The athlete’s lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The athlete was jailed in July last year after being found guilty on appeal of murdering model and law graduate Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013 by firing four shots through a locked bathroom door. The case attracted worldwide interest.

He had originally been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in jail. That conviction was increased to murder by the Supreme Court in December 2015 and his sentence extended to six years by trial judge Thokozile Masipa in July last year.

Masipa said in court that while the Steenkamps had suffered a great loss, “fallen hero” Pistorius’ life and career were also in ruins, and that a long prison term “would not serve justice”. Pistorius’ appearance during the trial without his prostheses had drawn gasps from the courtroom.

In a scathing criticism, the appeals court said Masipa’s ruling had “erred in deviating from the prescribed minimum sentence” of 15 years’ imprisonment for murder.

“The sentence of six years’ imprisonment is shockingly lenient, to a point where it has the effect of trivializing this serious offence,” said Judge Willie Seriti, who read out the unanimous court decision.

“I am of the view that there are no substantial and compelling circumstances which can justify the departure from the prescribed minimum sentence.”

FILE PHOTO: Former Paralympian Oscar Pistorius appears for sentencing for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp at the Pretoria High Court, South Africa June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Ludbrook/Pool/File Photo

Seriti also censured Pistorius, saying his apology to the deceased’s family during the hearing did “not demonstrate any genuine remorse on his part” and that he “does not appreciate the gravity of his actions”.

‘BIRTHDAY OF LOVE AND TEARS’

State prosecutors led by advocate Andrea Johnson had told the appeals hearing this month that there were no mitigating circumstances to justify Pistorius’ six-year sentence.

Defense lawyer Barry Roux argued that Pistorius did not deliberately kill Steenkamp and the appeal should be thrown out.

Roux had said during the July 2016 trial that Pistorius’ disability and mental distress following the killing should be considered as reasons to reduce his sentence.

Pistorius reached the semi-finals of the 400 meters at the London Olympics in 2012 and took two golds in the Paralympics.

Even in prison, he has been in the news.

In August, he was allowed out to attend his maternal grandmother’s funeral and spent a night in hospital for what local media reports said was a suspected heart attack.

In August 2016, the athlete denied trying to kill himself after he was treated in hospital for wrist injuries.

On Pistorius’ birthday on Wednesday, his father Henke told local YOU magazine that although he was behind bars, it was still a special day for his family, “full of love and tears”.

CONSTITUTIONAL COURT?

Legal analysts said Pistorius could still appeal to the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s topmost legal authority but saw his chances of success as slim.

“I don’t think it’s over. He has one more option,” said lawyer Ulrich Roux, who is not linked to the Pistorius defense.

“All the same there are few grounds of success in this venture, to be honest.”

Lawyer Zola Majavu said the Constitutional Court was unlikely to agree to hear the case.

“In my view, that will be a very tall order. It is pretty much the end of the road for Pistorius.”

Reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Catherine Evans

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