One of the top hashtags trending this week is #ThingsLongerThanOscarsSentence – iPhone charge, the Kim Kardashian/Kris Humphries marriage, Sirius Black’s prison sentence (for a crime he did not commit). But all joking aside, does this not raise a very serious point? Oscar Pistorius, who fatally shot his girlfriend of the time Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013, apparently mistaking her for an intruder, has received a five year sentence. When even this sounds lenient, it is expected he will be released after ten months for ‘good behaviour’.
Judge Thokozile Masipa insisted that her judgement was ‘fair and just, both to society and the accused’. But what about Reeva and her mourning family? There are two injustices with this sentence. Firstly, that Pistorius was sentenced to culpable homicide and not common-law murder. And secondly, if he is to be given this sentence, which is permittable given the lack of evidence, then why such a short sentence time? Does a suspected 10 month imprisonment serve as a justified punishment for the loss of a successful beautiful life, under suspicious and violent circumstances?
Pistorius was originally arrested and charged with murder. Judge Masipa’s argument against pre-meditated murder is fair –it cannot be proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Pistorius had planned to kill his girlfriend, Reena Steekamp. It is a possibility, due to the various elements of his story failing to add up – namely, the part where he shot at a locked bathroom door instead of checking where his girlfriend was. BUT, the judge is right; there simply isn’t enough hard evidence to prove this at all. Plus, shooting through a locked door suggests spontaneity, as opposed to pre-meditated murder. The injustice here lies in the fact that Oscar Pistorius was not charged with common-law murder, which states an unlawful intent to kill in the heat of the moment but without ‘malice aforethought’. Judge Masipa argued that ‘the accused had the intention to shoot at the person behind the door, not to kill’. Really? When Pistorius shot at that door, he consciously took the risk that he would kill whoever was behind that door; whether he thought it was Reeva or an apparent intruder. Oscar Pistorius committed himself to that risk by shooting at the door not once, but four times. For that he committed himself to murder. And for that he should pay the price.
If he is to be given the sentence of culpable homicide, which for the above reasons seems miscalculated, then he should at least be given a sentence which reflects the magnitude of his crime, the fatal shooting of a woman. The maximum sentence for homicide rests with 15 years, yet the Judge again showed remarkable leniency when she sentenced him to only five. The judge rejected the defence arguments that Pistorius is more likely to confront danger because of his disability as he will be going into the hospital prison unit. Moleko Modise, acting National Commissioner for Correctional Services stated that ‘we have facilities that will cater for his disability. There should be no doubt in the minds of South Africans that Mr Pistorius or any other person with disabilities should be accommodated.’ But if this short sentence is not designed with his disability in mind, then what is it designed for? The ambiguity of this case is well known, but this ambiguity should apply only to the distinction between murder and culpable homicide and should not sway the sentence length in anyway. Pistorius has been charged with manslaughter, and there can be no ambiguity about this – he fired those fatal shots, aware of the risk that this could kill whoever was on the other side of the door. Despite this, Judge Masipa dismissed a long sentence as inappropriate as ‘it would lack the element of mercy.’ But mercy is charging this man with culpable homicide instead of murder. What this sentence lacks is the element of justice.