Oscar Pistorius is now a convicted murderer. South Africa’s supreme court upgraded his original conviction of culpable homicide to murder. This technical difference between “murder” and “manslaughter” is also the difference between a life sentence in prison, or five years under “house arrest” in a private mansion.
Oscar Pistorius is a South African runner and Paralympic Gold medalist.
Because of the prosthetic limbs he uses when racing, he goes by the nickname of “Blade Runner”. This is a reference to a cult science fiction film from the 1980s. Pistorius was the first amputee to win an able-bodied medal at the World Championships in 2011. Pistorius had to argue with officials that his artificial limbs did not give him an unfair advantage. In 2012 he competed at both the London Olympics and London Paralympics.
On 14th February 2013, Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his partner, South African Law graduate and model Reeva Steenkamp, in their apartment. Pistorius denied the charge of murder. He claims that he heard a sound in the bathroom, and believed burglars were breaking in. Fearing attack, he fired a gun four times through the closed bathroom door.
There was plenty of speculation over whether Pistorius and Steenkamp had argued that night. Neighbours claimed they heard screams and shouting. Prosecutors have questioned several elements of Pistorius’s story.
The chief prosecutor said that a pair of jeans on the floor suggested that the normally neat Steenkamp was attempting to leave the apartment. “Why would she leave her jeans on the floor if everything else is in her overnight bag?,” he asked. “She wanted to leave, and you weren’t sleeping, you were both awake and there was an argument.”
In South Africa owning a gun is legal but you must have a permit. In order to be granted a permit, you must pass a “competency test” which evaluates whether you know the gun laws in the country.
Pistorius scored “top marks” in this test, which proved that he knew that it was only legal to fire a weapon if under attack. He answered the last test question (on the importance of identifying your target) with “always know your target and what lies behind.” In South Africa firing on an unseen target is illegal; a firearm training expert stated that Pistorius’s test result showed that he knew this.
Pistorius claimed that it was only after shooting through the door that he realised Steenkamp was not in the bedroom with him. He then broke into the bathroom and found her body slumped by the toilet.
In late 2014 Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of “culpable homicide”, but not murder. In South Africa court verdicts are decided by a judge, unlike UK and US courts which use a jury to decide. Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa ruled that Pistorius killed Steenkamp without intent or premeditation (planning in advance).
The difference is that murder requires the intention to kill whereas culpable homicide requires negligence (meaning reckless behaviour or failure to take proper care led to the death of the victim). In the UK culpable homicide is known as “manslaughter”.
Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Under South African law the minimum sentence for murder is 15 years in jail. So, due to the definition of murder, Pistorius was due to escape a much longer prison sentence.
Guidelines in South African law state that non-dangerous prisoners should spend only 1/6th of their sentence in prison. After this time they can be considered for “House Arrest”.
House Arrest: the prisoner is confined to a house, rather than prison. Leaving the venue is usually restricted, if allowed at all. There are different types of house arrest; the most severe is where the prisoner is not allowed to leave the premises at all.
House Arrest was considered a good option for Oscar Pistorius. This is his first conviction of a crime. A probation officer claimed that tough conditions in South African prisons would “break him as a person”. High levels of drugs and violence, poor sanitation, lack of disabled facilities and risk of gang rape were some of the reasons given as to why Pistorius would not be safe in South African prison. Prison is not meant to be a holiday, but surely prisoners deserve to be kept safe?
Whether it was to keep him safe or for other reasons, Oscar Pistorius was kept away from other prisoners. He was housed in the hospital wing of the Kgosi Mampuru II prison with eight other disabled prisoners. A former inmate claimed Pistorius got special treatment. Boswell Mhlongo said “how can you get your own gym, your own gym alone? Why the cell that we’re in — we were never given curtains — but his cell was prepared special? Because he’s got money. I mean it’s Oscar Pistorius.”
As well as access to a gym it was reported that Pistorius was built a new bed and provided with a bath. Perhaps not surprisingly, his family deny that he has received special treatment.
Pistorius had a record of good behaviour in the first part of his prison sentence, and was deemed to be of low risk to society. This raises the question: if shooting someone is defined as “low risk”, what does “high risk” entail?
Oscar Pistorius was granted release from prison in June 2015 and was due to be transferred to House Arrest on Friday 21st August. It was thought he would wear an electronic tracking device, but would have been allowed to leave the house to work and complete community service. However, a few days before Pistorius’s release date the South African Justice Minister blocked the release of Pistorius.
Pistorius would have being staying at his uncle’s mansion, which has a swimming pool and private gym. The three storey mansion is located in a wealthy suburb in Pretoria, one of the three South African capital cities.
Yes, you read that right, South Africa has THREE capital cities. However, the important thing to note is that after 10 months Oscar Pistorius would have been serving the rest of his sentence in a luxurious mansion. Maybe we should call it “mansion arrest”?
Low risk or not, it was argued that this wasn’t much of a punishment. The parents of Reeva Steenkamp said that 10 months in jail is not long enough.
Just days before Pistorius’s release the South African Justice Minister blocked the release saying the athlete had not served enough of his sentence in jail to be eligible for house arrest. Remember: according to South African law non-dangerous prisoners should spend only 1/6th of their sentence in prison. 1/6th of Pistorius’s five year sentence is 10 months. Pistorius would have served that amount of time by August 21st 2015, the date he was set to be released. However, according to the Justice Minister he had only served around six months when he was granted house arrest. This technicality is the reason his release has been postponed.
It’s rare for a government official to get involved in individual cases like this. It’s was also reported that thousands of other inmates have been released into House Arrest. In these cases the Justice Department didn’t get involved, so why did they interfere in the Pistorius case? One legal expert stated that the intervention in the Pistorius case “smacks of political interference”.
Pistorius was eventually released into house arrest on 19th October 2015.
Prosecutors hoped to appeal the original conviction of culpable homicide. They claimed that firing four shots was a pretty clear intention to kill. On 3rd December 2015 South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal upgraded Pistorius’ conviction of culpable homicide to murder.
“As a result of the errors of law … and on a proper appraisal of the facts, he ought to have been convicted not of culpable homicide on that count but of murder.
In the interests of justice the conviction and the sentence imposed in respect thereof must be set aside and the conviction substituted with a conviction of the correct offence.”
A panel of judges led by Justice Lorimer Leach ruled that as Pistorius had a high calibre weapon he must have known that whoever was behind the door was about to die. The court also ruled that the original trial has incorrectly applied the rule of “dolus eventualis” which judges whether Pistorius knew his actions would result in a death.
“I have no doubt … the accused must have foreseen and therefore did foresee that whoever was behind that door might die.”
The verdict statement referred to a human tragedy of “Shakespearean proportion”. Pistorius will now have to return to court for a new sentence. As mentioned above the minimum sentence is 15 years, though experts believe a sentence of 10-12 years is more likely as the runner has already spent a year in prison.
A technical definition of murder is the difference between a few years in a mansion and at least a decade in prison. Was the original ruling of culpable homicide wrong? Was Pistorius given special treatment due to his celebrity status? Is this new tougher verdict making an example of Pistorius to deter other criminals?