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Oscar Pistorius sentenced to six years for Reeva Steenkamp's murder

Published:Wednesday | July 6, 2016 | 7:24 AM
Oscar Pistorius, center, leaves the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, on Wednesday.

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP):
Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympian described by a judge as a "fallen hero", was sentenced today to six years in a South African prison for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, a ruling viewed by some as too lenient.

However, Judge Thokozile Masipa appeared to anticipate criticism of a jail term that fell far short of the normally mandated 15 years for murder under South African law, declaring: "Our courts are courts of law, not courts of public opinion."

Pistorius, who shot Steenkamp through the door of a toilet cubicle in his home in 2013, 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 ruling, 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, possibly carrying Pistorius.

IN PHOTO: Oscar Pistorius arrives at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa today. A South Africa judge is expected to announce Pistorius' new sentence after his conviction was changed to murder for shooting girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013.

The sentencing was 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 competing at the 2012 Olympics on his carbon-fiber running blades, and was one of the world's most recognizable athletes.

"He's a fallen hero, he has lost his career and he is ruined financially," said Masipa, who originally convicted Pistorius of manslaughter, a ruling that was overturned by an appeals court that instead convicted him of murder and sent the case back to her for sentencing.

In explaining the sentence, Masipa said there are "substantial and compelling circumstances" to show leniency toward Pistorius because he is a "good candidate for rehabilitation," is unlikely to commit another crime and had shown what appeared to be genuine remorse over Steenkamp's death.

Pistorius, 29, maintained he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and reality TV star, by mistake thinking she was an intruder hiding in the bathroom early on Valentine's Day 2013. Prosecutors alleged that he killed her intentionally after the couple argued.

IN PHOTO: Parents of the late Reeva Steenkamp, June, left, and Barry, back, arrive inside the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa today. Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Part of the difficulty for the judge in determining an appropriate sentence was that the Supreme Court convicted Pistorius of murder with "indirect intent." Pistorius was found guilty because he knew someone might die — even an intruder — when he shot. As Masipa noted, the Supreme Court did not find that Pistorius knew he was firing at Steenkamp.

Pistorius will be eligible to apply for parole after three years, according to legal experts. Prosecutors, who had asked that he be sentenced to 15 years in prison, can appeal for a heavier sentence but have yet to comment on whether they will do so.

"The family accepts the judgment," Anneliese Burgess, a spokeswoman for the Pistorius family, said outside the courthouse.

The Steenkamp family did not criticize the sentence. "The family has said it before they wanted the law to run its course. It has done so. No further comment. They will keep a dignified silence," said Dup de Bruyn, the Steenkamp family representative.

Legal expert Marius du Toit described the sentence as "lenient but not wrong."