South African judge Thokozile Masipa has wide latitude in deciding the sentence after several days of legal arguments and testimony that begin Monday. Last month she convicted the double-amputee runner of culpable homicide, or negligent killing. Sentences for such a crime can range from a suspended sentence and a fine to as many as 15 years in prison.
Pistorius, once a celebrated athlete who ran in the 2012 Olympics, was charged with premeditated murder in a televised trial that transfixed many people around the world, but Masipa found him not guilty of that charge. She drew criticism from some South Africans who thought Pistorius could at least have been convicted of a lesser murder charge on the grounds that he knew a person could die when he fired four bullets through a toilet door in his home early on Valentine’s Day last year.
Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model, died in the hail of bullets, and prosecutors said Pistorius had opened fire in anger after the couple argued. The runner testified that he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder who was about to come out of the toilet and attack him.
South African lawyers vary widely in predictions about what kind of sentence Pistorius will get. Some say he is unlikely to go to jail because defense lawyers will successfully argue that the athlete is a first-time offender with a disability that would subject him to particular hardship in prison, while others anticipate that Pistorius will be sentenced to some prison time because of the severity of his crime.
“I think that the probabilities are that the judge will send him to prison for a certain period, but not a very long one,” said George Bizos, a human rights lawyer. He did not specify the length of a possible jail term.
There are “clear aggravating and mitigating factors” that could influence the judge’s decision-making but that it was difficult to accurately predict the penalty because the “sentencing law is so individually applied,” said Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer in the public law department at the University of Cape Town.
There are, however, past culpable homicide sentences in South Africa that provide some context for the Pistorius case.
They include a singer known as Jub Jub whose murder conviction was overturned and replaced with a culpable homicide conviction this month, dropping his prison sentence from 25 to eight years. He was arrested after a 2010 drag race in which he and another man ploughed cars into a group of schoolchildren, killing four and seriously injuring two.
In a separate case, a taxi driver’s murder conviction was also reduced to culpable homicide last year, cutting his prison time to eight years instead of 20. The driver’s car had hit a train, and 10 children died in the accident.