In Pistorius sentencing, a debate over remorse and mental health

The trial of the former Olympian Oscar Pistorius now facing murder charges in the death of his girlfriend has been closely watched in South Africa, where sentencing began Monday.

Phill Magakoe/Reuters
Oscar Pistorius, a former Olympian, attends sentencing for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp at the Pretoria High Court, South Africa on June 13, 2016.

When South African Judge Thokozile Masipa sentenced Oscar Pistorius to five years in prison in 2014 on charges of culpable homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend, she noted the former Olympian's celebrity status shouldn't shield him from facing punishment.

"It would be a sad day for this country if the impression was to be created that there was one law for the poor and disadvantaged and another for the rich and famous," she said.

Now, with Mr. Pistorius facing murder charges in the death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, Judge Masipa must again consider issues of equity and access to justice. As a sentencing hearing began Monday, a defense psychologist called Pistorius a "broken man" struggling with mental illness while prosecutors argued he has shown no remorse.

Clinical psychologist Jonathan Scholtz testified for the defense that the athlete, who became known as the "Blade Runner" for the carbon-fiber protheses he wore while competing, now suffers from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Pistorius' condition had "worsened" since 2014, Dr. Scholtz testified, likely making him unable to testify at the sentencing hearing, where he faces a minimum of 15 years in prison, the Associated Press reports.

He was "despondent and lethargic, disinvested, and leaves his future in the hands of God," Scholtz said. After South Africa's Supreme Court overturned his conviction and sentenced him to the more severe charge of murder, Pistorius has been under house arrest.

But chief prosecutor Gerrie Nel noted that Pistorius had recently given a TV interview, set to air later this month, questioning the psychologist's assertion that he could not testify.

Mr. Nel also pointed to an incident involving a confrontation between Pistorius and a police witness, arguing that the athlete could still be a danger to others and hadn't shown remorse.

"Please give us space and privacy. You didn't do your job in any case," the prosecutor quoted Pistorius as saying to the police officer, though he noted that Pistorius' defense team had apologized for the incident.

Prosecutors said that Pistorius had intended to kill Ms. Steenkamp, who had fled behind a locked bathroom door during an argument. Pistorius argued that he mistook her for an intruder.

He has received some support, with one group holding up a sign reading "Worldwide supporters for Oscar Pistorius," outside the Pretoria High Court on Monday, Reuters reports.

Following his conviction, Pistorius lost millions of dollars in endorsements and sponsorships, a fall from grace for a runner who became the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics in London in 2012.

But other groups have argued that the athlete, who is white, may have received preferential treatment and are pushing for him to remain behind bars, a decision that ultimately rests with Judge Masipa.

"I don't think he has remorse," Jacqueline Mofokeng, a spokeswoman for the Women's League of the ruling African National Congress party told Reuters on Monday. Members of the group have attended the trial in support of Steenkamp, a law graduate and model. "We are calling for the 15 years without parole,” Ms. Mofokeng added.

Some legal experts question that argument, citing similar cases that led to lesser punishments.

One case, noted Kelly Phelps, senior lecturer in criminal justice at the University of Capetown in South Africa, involved a businessman and preacher who received an eight-year suspended sentence, serving no jail time after pleading guilty to fatally shooting his wife through a locked bathroom door.

In the US, one researcher writing in the late 1990s, as celebrity trials of O.J. Simpson and former skater Tonya Harding drew widespread publicity, even proposed the creation of dedicated "high profile" courts to guarantee justice for well-known defendants.

"This Comment contends that professional athletes' celebrity status and the national media coverage that accompanies their cases cause some athletes to be singled out as sacrificial lambs while allowing other athletes to receive preferential treatment," wrote Laurie Nicole Robinson in the Indiana Law Journal in 1998.

Professor Phelps echoed those concerns. "With regards to money – people seem to assume that money buys a miscarriage of justice.... If anything, money levels the playing field between the state and the defense, rather than tilting the scales in the favor of the accused," she told journalists Mandy Wiener and Barry Bateman in their 2014 book about the case.

"The focus should be on getting poor people access to justice to the same extent that wealthy people have access to justice, not on removing the access to justice of wealthy people," she argued, noting the inequity of the justice system also wasn't restricted to South Africa.

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