Oscar Pistorius was sentenced to six years in prison Wednesday for the murder of his girlfriend, seemingly bringing to a close a legal drama that has been closely watched across South Africa.
While the country has a minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for murder unless a defendant can show compelling reasons why it should be reduced, Judge Thokozile Masipa said “substantial and compelling circumstances” did exist in the case of Mr. Pistorius.
Once seen as inspirational for his rise to become the first double-leg amputee to compete in the Olympics, Pistorius became a polarizing figure during his trial for shooting girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp multiple times through a bathroom door in 2013. He argued that he believed Ms. Steenkamp was an intruder.
Some, including Steenkamp’s parents, who frequently attended the trial, offered emotional testimony calling for him to face further consequences for the murder. Some women's rights groups also protested the sentence, arguing that "it sends the wrong message," as The Guardian reports.
Judge Masipa, who had earlier convicted Pistorius of manslaughter, a charge that was later upgraded by a higher court, pointed to the difficulty of imposing a sentence that "satisfies every relevant interest," calling Pistorius a "fallen hero" and a "good candidate for rehabilitation."
"Our courts are courts of law, not courts of public opinion," Masipa said, according to the Associated Press.
Pistorius’ lawyers have indicated they will not appeal the decision, while prosecutors, who can appeal for a heavier sentence, did not immediately say whether they will appeal.
The 2014 trial, and this year’s sentencing, which came after South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal upgraded his conviction to murder, were often filled with emotional moments and drama that played out on live television.
Pistorius’ lawyers contended that he he believed Steenkamp was an intruder, arguing at a sentencing hearing last month that Pistorius, who often wept in court, was a “broken man” who deserved leniency.
At one point, Pistorius removed his prosthetic legs and hobbled across the courtroom to support his lawyers' argument that he was not wearing his prostheses at the time of the shooting, and feared for his life when he fired through the bathroom door.
"He was anxious, he was frightened. ... He was suffering from anxiety disorder, and that's not gone," defense lawyer Barry Roux said, according to CNN. "This must all be seen in context of his disability."
But prosecutors maintained that Pistorius had a violent streak and said the athlete had killed Steenkamp intentionally following an argument. Barry Steenkamp, the father of the 29-year-old model, paralegal, and reality TV star, said during one sentencing hearing that he thinks of his daughter “every morning, afternoon and night.”
“I don't wish that on any human being, finding out what happened. It devastated us,” Mr. Steenkamp said, noting that his wife, June, had forgiven Pistorius but that he should still face punishment.
“You have to understand that forgiveness doesn't exonerate you from what you did,” he said.
Pistorius’ family defended the sentence against accusations that the former Olympian’s wealth had influenced the process. “The record has been set straight and justice done. The truth will always prevail,” tweeted his brother, Carl Pistorius, in the wake of the judge’s verdict.
Outside the courthouse, Dukes Masanabo, a South African sports official, told the AP he felt the sentence was too light. He was hoping Pistorius would be sentenced to 10 to 12 years , not six, particularly since the earlier manslaughter conviction had already carried a five-year sentence.
“The law didn’t take its course,” Mr. Masanabo told the AP.
But Judge Masipa, who had noted that Pistorius’ celebrity status shouldn’t shield him from facing punishment during the 2014 trial, said there were mitigating factors that should impact his sentence.
While she mentioned the devastating impact on Steenkamp’s family, she also noted that Pistorius tried to save Steenkamp’s life in the immediate wake of the shooting.
Ultimately, “mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors,” the judge said.