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Expert Witnesses Testify in Oscar Pistorius Sentencing Hearing

The South African murder trial of former Olympian Oscar Pistorius came to a close this week when Judge Thokozile Matilda Masipa sentenced the track start to 5 years in prison for the shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.  Mr. Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide in September, and over the last several weeks, expert witnesses have testified during his sentencing trial in order to help Judge Masipa determine the appropriate punishment.

Pistorius Guilty of Culpable Homicide

After a trial that dragged through the summer and featured headline grabbing expert witness testimony, Oscar Pistorius was found guilty of culpable homicide by Judge Masipa in September.  The South African judge determined that Pistorius was criminally negligent when he fired four shots through the bathroom door of the home that he and Steenkamp shared.  Although Judge Masipa was not convinced that Pistorius had acted with the level of intent required to find him guilty of murder, she was not willing to exonerate him on all charges.

With his verdict passed down, Pistorius underwent a lengthy sentencing hearing so Judge Masipa could find the appropriate punishment for his crime.  In South Africa, culpable homicide, which is similar to involuntary manslaughter in the United States, carries a possible sentence of 15-years.  Prosecutors, who had vehemently argued Pistorius killed Ms. Steenkamp knowingly during the course of an argument, pushed for a 10-year prison term.  Defense attorneys countered that Pistorius should avoid jail altogether, and spend 3-years under house arrest.

Pistorius Defense Team Calls Psychology Expert Witness

During the sentencing hearing, Pistorius’s defense attorneys called upon psychology expert witnesses to testify that the former Olympian deserved a merciful sentence because of his mental and emotional fragility.  Psychologist Lore Hartzenberg, a professional who has worked with Pistorius over the last year, took the stand and testified to the court that the defendant was a “broken man who has lost everything.”  Ms. Hartzenberg acknowledged the pain that Pistorius caused by killing Ms. Steenkamp, but pointed out that the tragedy had taken, “His moral and professional reputation, his friends, career and self-worth,” making him a poor candidate to receive a harsh prison sentence.  In Ms. Hartzenberg’s expert opinion, Pistorius had suffered sufficiently for his actions – which he maintains were taken under the mistaken impression his home was being raided by an intruder.

Echoing Ms. Hartzenberg’s call for leniency was state social worker Joel Maringa who was called on as a punishment expert witness.  According to Mr. Maringa, Pistorius’s “behaviour could be successfully modified within the community context,” and did not require a prison sentence.  Proposing that the convicted track star be placed under house arrest and ordered to community service, Mr. Maringa testified that Pistorius suffered from PTSD due to the shooting and was best served by a rehabilitation that involved him with his community and family rather than one spent in prison.

Prosecutors reacted strongly to the combined efforts of the defense team’s psychology expert witnesses, and countered that the harm Pistorius had caused combined with his implausible explanation for the events warranted a prison term of no less than 10-years.

Oscar Pistorius Sentenced to Five Years in Prison

After weeks of waiting, Judge Masipa delivered a sentence that sought a balance between leniency and excessive punishment, and arrived a prison term of 5-years.  Writing that she felt the sentence was “neither too light nor too severe,” Judge Masipa stressed that the purpose of the sentence was not to take retribution on Pistorius for his actions, but to determine a punishment that “was about achieving the right balance — proportionality.”

Critics of the sentence allege that Mr. Pistorius skin color and social status contributed significantly to his relatively light punishment.  Further raising the ire of many South Africans is the fact that the disgraced athlete may be eligible to serve a majority of his sentence under house arrest after he is evaluated by corrections officials after 10-months in a prison hospital.  Notably absent from the voices of dissent were Ms. Steenkamp’s family, who released a statement expressing their belief that justice had been served.  Mr. Pistorius will not appeal the sentence.