After the first day in the sentencing of Oscar Pistorius, it seems the former athlete, guilty of culpable homicide for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, may avoid jail time. The prosecution, however, is yet to plead its case. By GREG NICOLSON.
In Italy, Pistorius pushed a girl who had lost her arms and legs to meningococcal in wheelchair for a five kilometre fun run. He got blisters. In Tanzania, the athlete raised awareness about malaria and HIV/AIDS. In Mozambique, he raised awareness for those disabled by landmines. In South Africa, he visited townships to promote people to get their eyesight tested. Once, a child bit him, but to the athlete, it was nothing.
Around the world Pistorius was an inspiration to people living with disabilities, meeting them and even buying them prosthetics with his own money. He worked with groups like Unicef, the Cheshire Home and Reach for a Dream and had dealings on the charity work with icons like Sebastian Coe, Bobby Charlton and Novak Djokovic.
This is the testimony of Pistorius’s manager Peet van Zyl who said before “the incident” Pistorius was planning to launch his own NGO. “One day my foundation will be giving people back the gift of mobility,” the athlete once told him. “I have never met a more accommodating and humble person,” said Van Zyl.
Pistorius’s manager was one of three witnesses called by his defence team to argue in mitigation of sentence after the former athlete was found guilty of culpable homicide for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day 2013. The witnesses testified that Pistorius has shown remorse for his actions, has already paid a high price, and has in the past and possibly still be a benefit to society.
It was a day of Pistorius praise singing. While the prosecution is still to call its own witnesses, Pistorius’s legal team are clearly hoping the athlete will avoid jail time and soon be able to live something close to a normal life.
After going through over 80 pages of evidence of the charity work Pistorius was involved in, often in his own time and at his own cost, Van Zyl said all of the athlete’s endorsements were terminated after the verdict was delivered last month. He said it’s an understatement to say Pistorius had a bright future as his sponsorship deals had increased in value fivefold after the 2012 London Olympics and they ran up to 2017 when Pistorius planned to retire. Van Zyl said he hasn’t discussed with Pistorius whether he wants to return to the track.
Dr Lore Hartzenburg, who started counselling Pistorius for trauma shortly after he killed Steenkamp, also hadn’t discussed with her client whether he wanted to race again but said he still has potential despite the “incalculable weight” he now carries. Many of the trauma counselling sessions featured Pistorius weeping and retching, a feature of the trial, and Hartzenburg said he has “overwhelming” feelings of guilt and remorse and recognises he is ultimately responsible for Steenkamp’s death. His ability to grieve has been hampered by negative media reports, not being able to attend Steenkamp’s funeral or memorial service, and a feeling he is “damned if he did, damned if he did not”, a feeling expressed after Pistorius was criticised for hugging Barry Steenkamp, Reeva’s father, in court.
“We are left with a broken man who has lost everything,” said Hartzenburg. She said he has lost his career, moral and professional reputation and friends. Pistorius told him that one day he’d like to work at his uncle Arnold’s school in Mozambique, she said.
With little luck, prosecutor Gerrie Nel tried to jolt her testimony, which essentially claims the killer is remorseful. He asked her why the pair didn’t discuss reports that Pistorius was in a new romantic relationship, but she said they were only media reports and a trauma counsellor’s role is to discuss what the client brings to the session. The reports said Pistorius had begun dating a paramedic student he met in Mozambique, but they weren’t discussed in the trial and no further reports have followed. Nel also suggested Hartzenburg could be biased after she cried while attending court one day.
The second witness called by the defence was the most positive for Pistorius. Mashaba Joel Maringa, a social worker in the Department of Correctional Services offices of community corrections, was asked to perform a sentencing assessment and said the department recommends Pistorius be sentenced to correctional supervision. It depended on Pistorius being found guilty of culpable homicide rather than premeditated murder, his having no prior convictions, the trauma he has already experienced, his physical and psychological condition, and the productive role still to be played in his career and family life.
Maringa said Pistorius’s behaviour can be modified in a community context under strict conditions. He said Pistorius had indicated to him he wants to go back to athletics. The conditions mean he would only be able to leave his uncle Arnold’s house, a three-story, large, former Dutch Reformed Church rectory in the wealthy area of Waterkloof with high walls and a swimming pool, to go to work.
Maringa, who recommended a three year sentence, insisted correctional supervision is not a light punishment as it would have strict conditions. Pistorius would have to check in with authorities, would do 16 hours of community service a month – two eight hour days of domestic work at either the Transvaal Museum or Pretoria’s Little Company of Mary Hospital. He wouldn’t be allowed to drink alcohol or take drugs. He would also need to continue counselling and undergo training to deal with his anger.
“We are basically saying that he should not be destroyed because he will still be coming back into the community,” said Maringa, reflecting the recent government approach to focus more on rehabilitation than punishment.
Nel called the suggestion “shockingly inappropriate”. The advocate asked whether he’d taken the Steenkamps into consideration, which Maringa said he did. When Nel pressed him on the degree of negligence showed by Pistorius, intentionally shooting four shots into a bathroom door which he thought someone was behind, Maringa faltered on his understanding of the judgment. The Department of Correctional Services official appeared as though he lacked an understanding of Judge Thokozile Masipa’s October judgment, which Nel is likely to use to argue that Pistorius showed a high degree of negligence and should go to jail.
Court resumes on Tuesday when Nel will cross-examine Van Zyl on his statements about Pistorius’s philanthropy and career. The defence will call one more witness before Nel, who was combative on Monday, will call witnesses to argue why Pistorius should go to jail. He will likely focus on the violent nature of Pistorius’s negligence, causing loss of human life with a firearm, aspects of his temper and aggressive personality, whether or not he has really shown remorse, and the carnage he’s caused the Steenkamp family.
On Monday, however, Pistorius seemed calm and his legal team confident. If Maringa’s recommendations are followed, Oscar could soon be stationed in his uncle Arnold’s mansion, potentially trying to revive his athletics career, doing community service that’s little different from what Community Work Programme staff do every day. DM
Photo: South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius (L) talks with a friend and with one of his counsellors at the end of the first day of sentencing procedures at the High Court in Pretoria, South Africa, 13 October 2014. Judge Thokozile Masipa found South African Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius not guilty of the murder of Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013 but guilty of culpable homicide. EPA/MARCO LONGARI / POOL