PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to six years in prison Wednesday for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and observers immediately criticized the sentence as lenient.
South Africa has a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for murder unless an offender can show reasons why it should be reduced. Judge Thokozile Masipa said those “substantial and compelling circumstances” did exist in the case of the world-famous runner, who shot Steenkamp multiple times through a toilet door in his home in 2013. Masipa called the double-amputee Olympian a “fallen hero.”
Pistorius will be eligible for parole after three years. Prosecutors can appeal for a heavier sentence.
One of Pistorius’ defense lawyers said they would not appeal the decision. “The family accepts the judgment,” Anneliese Burgess, a spokeswoman for the Pistorius family, said outside the courtroom.
Prosecutors did not immediately say if they will challenge the sentence.
In deciding to deviate from the minimum of 15 years, Judge Masipa said Pistorius is a “good candidate for rehabilitation,” and is unlikely to reoffend.
Pistorius will be eligible for parole after serving half the sentence under new legislation in South Africa, legal expert Marius du Toit said.
“I think it’s lenient but not wrong,” Du Toit said of the sentence.
Pistorius was asked to stand and face Masipa as she announced his sentence in a wood-paneled courtroom in the South African capital, Pretoria. He was calm after the sentence was announced, embracing his aunt and tearful sister before being led down a courtroom staircase to a holding cell ahead of being taken to prison.
Later, a convoy of police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing left a side entrance of the courthouse. In the convoy was a van with tinted windows; it was not clear whether Pistorius was inside.
Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, were also present in the courtroom, which was packed with relatives of both Pistorius and Steenkamp, journalists and other observers.
In delivering her sentence, Masipa referred to the difficulties she faced in deciding a sentence that “satisfies every relevant interest” in a case that captured the world’s attention and led to extremes of opinion over the world-famous athlete. One thing she said was not relevant, though, was public opinion.
Masipa noted that Pistorius had used a lethal weapon in the killing and had fired four times — not once — through a closed toilet door in the early hours of Valentine’s Day three years ago. She also spoke of the devastating effect the crime had on Steenkamp’s family.
But she said there were mitigating factors, raising examples like that Pistorius tried to save Steenkamp’s life in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.
Ultimately, “mitigating circumstances outweigh the aggravating factors,” the judge said.
Prosecutors had sought at least 15 years in prison for the 29-year-old Pistorius. His defense lawyers had asked for no jail time at all for the athlete, and asked that he be allowed to do charity work with children.
The sentencing is the latest act of a three-and-a-half year legal drama that has often played out on live television and shown the fall from grace of a runner once viewed as an inspiration to many for overcoming his disability. Both of Pistorius’ legs were amputated below the knees when he was 11 months old because of a congenital defect.
He made history by running at the 2012 Olympics on his carbon-fiber running blades, and was one of the world’s most recognizable athletes.
Pistorius killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and reality TV star, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day in 2013 by shooting her multiple times through a toilet cubicle door in his home. Pistorius maintained he killed Steenkamp by mistake thinking she was an intruder hiding in the bathroom.
Prosecutors charged that he killed her intentionally after the couple argued.
In 2014, Pistorius was acquitted of murder by Masipa following a dramatic seven-month trial. He was instead convicted of manslaughter and served one year in prison.
His conviction was upgraded to murder last year when prosecutors appealed to South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal.
Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, Dukes Masanabo, a South African sports official, said he was hoping Pistorius would be sentenced to 10 to 12 years, not six.
He said the sentence is too light because Pistorius was sentenced to almost the same sentence — five years — for his earlier manslaughter conviction.
“The law didn’t take its course,” Masanabo said.
Another onlooker, Sarah Maete, said she wanted Pistorius to get a 15-year jail term and six years is too light.
“It’s not enough,” she said.
Imray reported from Somerset West, South Africa.